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St. Louis Cardinals v Cleveland Indians

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Greg Holland pitches during a game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cleveland Indians at Busch Stadium on Tuesday, June 26, 2018, in St. Louis, Mo. Photo by Chris Lee, clee@post-dispatch.com

Call it the Holland holding pattern.

It’s that gray area you enter when trying to draw a conclusion on the Cardinals’ $14-million man.

Signing Holland on opening day was the move that made the Cardinals a legitimate postseason contender, I convinced myself when it happened, and promptly looked dense.

But those who spent the first two months of the season demanding a pink slip might have ruled out the righthander a bit prematurely.

One thing’s certain: Holland has heard none of our hemming and hawing.

“I don’t keep up with it,” he said in the clubhouse this week. “It’s part of the game, when you struggle. I got some stupid questions, so I assume there were some things being written that I didn’t agree with ... This game can be as hard mentally as it is physically. Luckily, I’m at the point in my career where I know how to manage it.”

While Holland has never shied away from the questions (stupid, or not) that swelled along with his ERA, his ability to wall himself off from the conclusions being drawn all around him speaks to the approach that led him here.

Here, meaning the big picture — the one that paints Holland as a three-time All-Star with a track record that, including his perfect mark in seven postseason save opportunities, boasts a 90 percent save percentage in the 215 career opportunities he has handled since 2011.

And also here, meaning the current snapshot — the one of a 32-year-old veteran who let results only he could see convince him to lobby an employer that was running thin on patience to let him prove it was not time to cut ties.

Holland’s ERA reached an absurd 9.45 in his first 18 appearances (13.1 innings) this season. In 75 batters faced, he surrendered 20 hits and 15 walks and totaled just 10 strikeouts. Opponents averaged .339 and slugged .525 against him as his role went from locked-in closer, to liability, to landing on the disabled list with a right hip impingement after he said multiple times he felt fine. What was at first explained away as rust due to his lack of spring training soon became the elephant on the mound.

“It gets to a point where you’re kind of beating your head against the wall,” Holland said.

The notion that he might be done was not one of the ideas bouncing around his brain. “You can’t think like that, or it’s already over,” he said.

We may never know just how close the Cardinals were to paying Holland to not pitch when he took the mound against Philadelphia on June 19. Club officials had been puzzled by his early struggles, but encouraged that a significant velocity drop, a red flag for arm injury, was not among the warning lights. But when Holland stressed that he was ready to return after five mostly-unimpressive rehab appearances in what could have been a 30-day window to get right, the situation was clear: Holland had called his shot. If he missed, he needed to go.

Before his appearance Friday night, Holland had stacked together four scoreless one-inning outings that included zero walks, one hit and five strikeouts. Compared to his pre-DL numbers, his four-seam fastball had been thrown for a strike 10 percent more often. And his slider’s swing-and-miss percentage had jumped up by nearly 11 percent.

It was during that five-appearance rehab tour that produced a concerning 7.20 ERA when Holland felt his hip finally allow him to repeat his delivery consistently. This helped his fastball command, which is critical for setting up his signature slider. If he can’t place his fastball, he can’t effectively use the pitch that mirrors it before sliding out of the strike zone.

“He’s looked like a different guy,” general manager Michael Girsch said before Friday’s game. “He’s been ahead in the count. That slider is now getting chases as opposed to people just watching it in the dirt. He’s pitched much more like we had hoped.”

Girsch was pitched the question the rest of us debate daily.

When can Holland truly be trusted? When is this real?

“I don’t know that there is a magic number,” he said. “He might go out tonight, and give up a couple of runs. But if he’s ahead in the count, and getting swings and misses, and balls fall in, then sometimes that happens. I don’t think there’s a magic spot, but I do think every time he goes out there and pitches like he has the last four outings, you feel more and more like, yeah, the previous two months of Greg Holland was a combination of a whole bunch of things, and we are back to the one we expected.”

Manager Mike Matheny called upon the former closer to replace rookie Jordan Hicks on Friday. The Braves led 3-0 with one out and a runner on second. Ballyhooed prospect turned No. 8 hitter Dansby Swanson entered the box.

Holland jumped ahead 0-2 before Swanson poked a run-scoring single to right, then wound up on third thanks to Harrison Bader’s throwing error.

Here we go again?

Not quite.

Holland’s response should not have been lost in the Cardinals’ loss.

He went ahead 0-2 on pinch-hitter Ryan Flaherty and finished him with a swing-and-miss slider.

Then Holland went ahead 0-2 on leadoff hitter Ender Inciarte and, after two fouled-off sliders, struck him out on one of his rare curveballs.

Holland is starting to look like himself again, with plenty of time to change your mind.

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