JUPITER, Fla. • Matt Holliday still carries October with him. He has little choice.
What should be his profession’s most exciting stage tried him, raised him up, teased him, left him in excruciating pain and ultimately sent him away exhausted and prayerful that nothing worse would follow.
The Cardinals last won a game on one of the scariest days of Holliday’s life.
Last Oct. 18 they beat the San Francisco Giants in Game 4 of the National League championship series, moving within a win of reaching their second World Series in as many years.
Playing with little sleep and divided attention, Holliday managed two RBI hits in an 8-3 win at Busch Stadium. Both ranked as insignificant details.
The Cardinals left fielder arrived at the ballpark shortly after his mother, Kathy, had awoken from surgery to remove a cancerous section of colon, a fist-sized tumor and surrounding lymph nodes.
Doctors at Barnes-Jewish Hospital informed the Holliday family that they wouldn’t know how advanced Kathy’s cancer was until lab results could be read — a matter of days, maybe more than a week.
Holliday recalled it Thursday as “real life stuff.” That night he related it as “part of being a big boy.”
In a perfect world the Cardinals would have finished off the Giants on Oct. 19, allowing the club and Holliday to remain in St. Louis for the next week as the ALCS played out and the Cards hosted the first two World Series games.
But 2012 reminded Holliday life is rarely perfect.
The Cardinals dropped Game 5 and had to travel to San Francisco. There, Holliday’s lower back seized up, forcing manager Mike Matheny to scratch him from Game 6.
The Giants completed a remarkable comeback, outscoring the Redbirds 20-1 the last three games.
The Cardinals were 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position in Game 7 and trailed 7-0 after three innings. Giants starting pitcher Matt Cain drilled Holliday with a pitch in the sixth-inning, apparent payback for Holliday’s hard slide into Giants second baseman Marco Scutaro in Game 1.
Holliday took it without comment.
“Any time your attention is divided in several different directions it can be emotionally draining playing games where every pitch is so huge,” he reflected Thursday. “That’s real-life stuff. That’s part of it. That’s no excuse for anything. It’s part of life and you try to handle it the best way possible.”
Holliday spent much of the offseason in Stillwater, Okla., where his older brother Josh was named head baseball coach at Oklahoma State last summer. Kathy Holliday spent time there surrounded by her sons and their families. Her cancer proved treatable without radiation and chemotherapy.
Holliday on Thursday described her as “doing very well.”
The brothers’ families dined together each night. During the day, Josh helped his younger brother reconstruct a swing that frayed during last season’s latter stages.
Whether caused by chronic back pain or not, Holliday fell into a tendency where he lifted his front leg higher than normal. His hands rose as well, leaving him late to the ball.
Holliday fouled off pitches he would typically crush. Those he crushed fell short of the warning track.
“I felt like my swing and my season was a little up and down and not as consistent as I like,” Holliday said. “My mechanics weren’t where I wanted them, particularly in the last month. I really wanted to get back to the basics with his help. He knows my swing better than anybody and knows a lot about hitting in general. I spent more time with him in four weeks than I had in the last 10 years.”
Holliday retains a residence in St. Louis but enrolled his children in a Stillwater school. For the first time since reaching the major leagues his schedule meshed with family.
“We have a great family. But it was a bit of an emotional time,’ Holliday remembered about what occurred before the family’s winter reunion.
“We’re not the only family that’s experienced cancer. It wasn’t ideal. But I’m not sure it ever is.”
Holliday finished last season hitting .295 with 27 home runs and 102 RBIs. He finished 11th in balloting for National League most valuable player honors though his on-base-plus-slugging percentage dropped a third consecutive year.
At 33, Holliday has begun to make concessions unthinkable several years ago.
Hitting long has been an addiction. Now he realizes it might be a matter of temperance because of a body that betrayed him the past two seasons.
Asked when less becomes more, Holliday said, “I think I’m there. I’m having to understand that it can take eight-15 swings to get a good feel instead of 20-50. Maybe take a round or two less of batting practice. Avoid the temptation of hitting outside all the time and trying to crush balls. When you’re young you can let it rip as many times as you want and it’s not a big deal. Now I’m at a point where you think about it.”
Holliday thought about much this winter. He wondered how cancer found his 59-year-old mother who had long devoted herself to proper diet and conditioning. He thinks about what eliminating the Giants in Game 5 would have meant both professionally and personally.
“It would have been ideal but it never really works out like that,” he said. “Life doesn’t always go as planned. I just try to be a leader of my family and deal the best I can with every situation and do what lines up with our beliefs and our faith.”
Ever an optimist, Holliday dwells on his time spent with family and the opportunity before this year’s team, increasingly his team.
He recalls the care his mother received in St. Louis and how she has emerged from surgery.
“She was treated amazingly well by the doctor and the nurses,” he said. “From that standpoint it couldn’t have worked out any better.”