Programming note: For complete coverage of the Giants-Pirates Wild Card game, tune in to October Quest at 4 p.m. Wednesday and following the game on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.
PITTSBURGH – Few teams understand the concept of the “bullpen secret weapon” as thoroughly as the Giants.
In the 2012 postseason, they converted Tim Lincecum from a struggling former ace into a vapor trail in the late innings. A decade earlier, in the 2002 World Series against the Anaheim Angels, they ran up against an upstart September call-up with a crazy delivery and filthy stuff. The Angels probably don’t win the AL pennant that year, let alone the championship, without Francisco Rodriguez.
Now as the Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates prepare to clash in the NL Wild Card knockout game Wednesday, both teams have their own secret weapon peeking out from behind the bullpen screen.
John Holdzkom, 26, has appeared in nine games since making his major league debut Sept. 2. The Pirates’ towering, 6-foot-7 right-hander has pitched nine innings and struck out 14 of the 32 big league hitters he’s faced. His fastball averages 96.5 mph and topped out at 98.1
Hunter Strickland, 26, has appeared in nine games since making his major league debut Sept. 1. The Giants’ powerfully built, 6-foot-4 right-hander has pitched seven innings and struck out nine without issuing a walk. His fastball averages 98.5 mph and topped out at 99.9.
Both right-handers have taken their share of left turns. Strickland was the Pirates’ property once, actually, obtained from the Boston Red Sox as more medical project than pitcher and finally designated for assignment two years ago to clear a 40-man roster space for left-hander Jonathan Sanchez. (Yes, that Jonathan Sanchez.)
Strickland had more health issues after the Giants plucked him off waivers from the Pirates. He required Tommy John surgery last May after blowing out his elbow as the closer for Single-A San Jose, and although he had a locker in major league camp this spring, he was a rehab guy. His only experience in a big league spring training game was back with the Pirates. Before his call-up a month ago, the biggest crowd he’d ever experienced while on the mound was 11,000, maybe, when it was Fourth of July at Double-A Richmond.
Back in the spring, when I asked Strickland’s goals for the season, I expected he might tell me he wanted to stay healthy, pitch a certain amount of innings, maybe work on a different pitch.
“I want to be in the big leagues and help the Giants win a World Series at the end of the year,” he said back in March, standing in the Scottsdale Stadium dugout one morning.
Here he is. Bold statement in retrospect, eh?
“Well, it is,” said Strickland, smiling. “But in order to accomplish those goals, you’ve got to believe in yourself. Nobody will believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself. That’s true for everyone. To win a World Series and be part of a championship team, you have to be confident.”
Holdzkom didn’t have much reason to believe his baseball career would turn around. Already released by from the Mets (in 2010) and the Reds (in 2012) minor league systems, Holdzkom’s wildness even brought walking papers from an independent club in Sioux City.
That was five months ago.
The former fourth-round pick from Southern California found himself texting former managers and teammates, hoping for a roster spot somewhere. His resume tape was little more than highlights pitching for New Zealand (his father is a Kiwi) in the qualifying rounds of the World Baseball Classic. As J.J. Cooper of Baseball America reported, that was enough to get Holzkom a job pitching in San Angelo, Texas, for the lowest rung of professional baseball – and a monthly salary of $600.
The short version (although you should read J.J.’s long version, it’s excellent): A San Angelo pitching coach suggested a grip change, he started throwing high-octane strikes for the first time in his life, a Pirates scout happened to see him, he signed a contract and here he is on a postseason roster.
A secret weapon.
“If you want to call me that, I guess,” said Holdzkom, who is understandably weary of telling his tale by now.
Baseball New Zealand is adopting him as a conquering hero, even though he’s only been there once and probably doesn’t know Rotorua from Paraparaumu. There’s one Giants official who can led them a scouting report on Holdzkom and that’s his Team New Zealand manager, Andy Skeels, who spent last season as the hitting coach at Triple-A Fresno. Skeels was born in New Zealand but grew up in the U.S.
The Kiwis didn’t advance to the World Baseball Classic but they did score their first victory in international competition.
“It was a fun experience playing for him,” Holdzkom said. “There was no personal stuff, no stats. All we wanted to do was win.”
They even beat Thailand, with a 40-year-old Johnny Damon.
“Yeah, but that was about all they had,” said Holzkom, smiling.
Now these two secret weapons, Holdzkom and Strickland, will have the opportunity to pitch in the biggest games of their lives – and maybe make a huge impact on it.
“Oh, it’s a huge difference to pitch in front of a crowd like this,” said Strickland, who has future closer written all over him. “But I feel I’m better under pressure and I love those situations. I love the opportunity to perform in front of fans, especially San Francisco fans. They’re the best in baseball. It’s an honor to do that in front of people who love the game.”