WILMINGTON, Del. - Just before taking the mound for the Lynchburg Hillcats on Tuesday, right-handed pitcher A.J. Holland ignored the pregame antics of Wilmington Blue Rocks mascot Rocky Bluewinkle and fixed his gaze on a group of fans sitting behind the visitor's dugout at Frawley Stadium.
More than 20 family members and friends from his hometown of Margate had made the 90-minute trek from the Atlantic City area to watch him pitch against the Blue Rocks.
"This is the closest I've ever been to my hometown since I started in the minors (in 2011)," Holland said after the game. "It felt good to look over and see some familiar faces in the stands. I actually felt some nerves because it's been so long. But they went away after the first pitch. After that, I just went out there and battled."
Holland, 22, has been winning most of those battles this season. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound right-hander is one of the top starters in the advanced-Single A Carolina League. He suffered a 4-3 loss to the Blue Rocks, allowing four runs (three earned) with six hits, four walks and five strikeouts in six innings, but still ranks among the league leaders in several pitching categories. His 3-2 record in nine starts includes a 3.18 earned run average (11th in the league). He's second with 51 innings pitched and tied for 10th in wins.
A 16th-round draft pick of Atlanta in 2011 out of Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, Holland is regarded as one of the top young pitchers in the Braves' minor-league organization.
"He's definitely a prospect for us and for the Braves," Hillcats pitching coach Derek Botelho said after the game. "And I expect him to get even better as the season goes on. He's starting to mature and understand what he's capable of achieving. He's getting to the point now where his talent is starting to catch up to his arm. And most importantly, he's a competitor. I think he has a very bright future."
Holland displayed those competitive instincts in both football and baseball while at Holy Spirit High School.
The 2008 graduate was the starting quarterback for what is arguably the best Spartans football team in program history. That group of Spartans became the first Holy Spirit team to finish 12-0 and win a state title by taking the non-Public III crown. That spring, he joined Millville's Mike Trout, Mainland Regional's Charlie Law and Middle Township's Scott DeCecco on The Press All-Star team.
Trout was last season's American League Rookie of the Year and hit for the cycle Tuesday night for the Los Angeles Angels. Law is currently starring for Rutgers University and is expected to be drafted in June. DeCecco is pitching for the Clinton LumberKings (Mariners) in the Class A Midwest League.
"I was so happy to see him pitch last night and I thought looked pretty good out there," said Margate resident Yogi Hiltner, a longtime friend and one of Holland's former coaches who was at Tuesday's game. "I'm not surprised he's doing well. I've been coaching him since he was in Little League and he's always had such tremendous composure and poise. And I think playing quarterback for Holy Spirit added in some chutzpah."
Those qualities came through against the Blue Rocks. He cruised through the first three innings before some shaky defense contributed to a two-run rally for Wilmington. The inning would have been worse, but Holland registered two of his five strikeouts and made a nifty, barehanded toss to Lynchburg catcher Shawn McGill to foil a suicide squeeze.
Holland had control issues in the fifth, issuing two walks while a botched double-play relay and an error led to two runs.
"The biggest challenge for me is to have confidence with my fastball," said Holland, who consistently throws 93-94 miles per hour and has reached as high as 96. "The hitters in this league are very aggressive, but I still need to use my fastball more to get guys out. I've been told I have a pretty good arsenal of pitches, but a located fastball is the hardest pitch to hit in any league."
Holland's professional career got off to a slow start. After signing with the Braves in 2011, he was 0-1 with a 5.08 ERA with Danville in the Appalachian League. Last year, he spent time with the Braves' Gulf Coast League team in Orlando and Rome (Ga.) in the South Atlantic League and was a combined 6-10.
Determined to improve his mechanics and strength, he spent last winter working out at a baseball academy in Scottsdale, Ariz. Tuesday's game marked the first time he had seen his parents, Patty and Ward Holland, since Christmas.
"We got to spend about an hour with him after the game and we're going up there again (today)," his father, Ward Holland, said. "(Patty) brought him a care package that weighed about 150 pounds. It had Johnson's Popcorn, some Dino's subs, Tastykakes and all the other stuff you can't get down south."
Holland said that at first it was tough for being away from his family for so long, but he's getting used to it now.
"This team is like a family. We're a pretty close-knit group and have a special bond and brotherhood," Holland said. "I've been blessed to have this opportunity to play baseball for a living and I want to do everything I can to take advantage of it. This is my career."
Contact David Weinberg:
Drafted:16th round by Atlanta in 2011 out of Saint Joseph's University
Team: Lynchburg Hillcats (Class-A Advanced Carolina League)
2013 stats: 3-2, 3.18 ERA, 51 innings pitched, 34 strikeouts, 23 walks, 18 earned runs