The longest night of Derek Holland's 2011 season was his shortest night on the mound.
Holland had recorded a whopping two outs and Florida had scored five times July 2 before he was removed in the first inning.
His previous start hadn't exactly been smooth sailing as New York tallied 12 hits and seven runs (three earned) in six interleague innings against the Texas Rangers' left-hander.
It wasn't necessarily results that made for the long night as much as the uncertainty those results created.
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Though 6-4 with a shutout few weeks earlier, Holland's ERA was a plump 5.10. With right-hander Scott Feldman nearing a return from the disabled list, Holland's days as a starter were believed to be numbered.
He made what some thought would be his final start July 7. He four-hit Oakland to save his rotation spot, then five-hit Seattle a week later to open the second half.
Holland wasn't going anywhere and isn't now. Two months ago his rotation future was clouded, but it's difficult to image a postseason rotation without him in it.
All it took for Holland to save his season was a mechanical tweak, a butt-chewing and a little more diligence with his homework.
"I've done a lot of work behind the scenes to make myself a better pitcher," Holland said. "If I go out there and give the team a chance to win, that's all that matters."
Holland will make his 31st start of the season tonight as the Rangers open a three-game series at Oakland with a five-game lead in the American League West.
He's now 14-5 with a 4.02 ERA in 186 innings.
Work with bullpen coach Andy Hawkins has helped correct a mechanical flaw that was causing Holland to throw across his body. He is making a straight stride toward home plate now rather than landing to the third-base side of the mound.
"Hawk has been working really hard with him every day on his delivery," pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "The more consistent the delivery has become, the more consistent he has become."
Holland wasn't on solid ground July 30, when he threw a ball away in the second inning at Toronto to put runners at second and third in the second inning.
The sloppy play, which followed a two-out walk, earned Holland a visit from manager Ron Washington. Only one man spoke in the mound meeting, and it wasn't Holland.
Washington's stern words served as a wake-up call. Holland got out of the inning and tossed his fourth shutout of the season.
He has dropped only one decision since throwing that four-hitter.
"It better had snapped him in, because I told him if it didn't I was taking his butt out," Washington said. "It's always been his focus. I also think he's learning to trust his stuff and slow things down a bit."
With Holland's delivery and focus right, the rest has been up to him.
He's throwing more off-speed pitches, and throwing them for strikes.
He has become more of a student of the game, seeking tips from his teammates and coaches while delving more deeply into his scouting work.
He has always watched video, but it wasn't until this season that he understood that what might have worked for one left-hander against a certain team won't necessarily work for him.
"You have to take what's relevant from the guy you're watching," Maddux said. "He's more disciplined in his preparation. It comes with knowing what you need to work on and the ability to apply your homework."
Holland could find himself on a big stage in the postseason. The Rangers are headed toward a first-round series with New York, but could get Boston or Tampa Bay.
Left-handers match up better against those AL East clubs.
Holland turned in one of the biggest pitching performances of the postseason last year at Yankee Stadium during the AL Championship Series.
That was as a reliever. He's a starter this year, destined for the playoff rotation.
"It was definitely a big confidence booster," said Holland, who threw 32/3 scoreless innings and was the winning pitcher in Game 4.
"It showed that you can go in a big stadium against a team that has plenty of playoff experience. To go out there and pitch the way I did is huge for upcoming times. I'll be able to use that for the next time around."
Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760