When you get right down to it, denial always has been a crucial component of Greg Holland’s makeup.
“Fear can go a long way in this game if you harness it the right way,” he said with a laugh in a 2013 interview. “You don’t want to get in jams, but when you do, you should really embrace it.
“And, for me, that’s really helped. Because I take it as, ‘Let’s see what we can do here, because it doesn’t really get any harder than this.’ ”
That swashbuckling outlook, along with an accompanying unquenchable drive, explains how Holland sprouted from being a 5-foot-7, 150-pound high school infielder into one of the premier relief pitchers in Major League Baseball the last few years as the Royals’ closer.
Until Thursday, anyway, when Holland, 29, was shut down for the season with a torn ligament in his right throwing arm, and was left to face something else he said that day in 2013.
One reason he was always all-in, he said, was that he has no idea when “this game’s going to come to a screeching halt.”
Suddenly, Holland faces the likelihood of Tommy John surgery and, ultimately, the prospect of his time with the Royals ending when his current $8.25 million contract expires after this season.
Those matters, though, are for another day. Holland plans to get a second opinion on what manager Ned Yost called a “significant” tear.
For now, it’s a moment to pause and appreciate Hol land, who has been a key part of the bridge from the Royals’ dismal past to their thriving present.
He had 125 saves the last two-plus seasons and tied a major-league record with seven postseason saves in 2014 despite experiencing the beginning of his ligament issues in the weeks before last year’s playoffs.
It’s been a race against the inevitable since then, really, a race that Holland against all gravity and logic still concocted ways to pace.
Until he just couldn’t anymore.
“At the end of the day, it’s best for the team and for me personally,” he said Thursday. “It’s a tough decision, but (it’s) one we made collectively to try and get better.”
For all concerned, that is.
And it will do just that for all.
The Royals theoretically can now start clarifying the back end of their bullpen, diminished at it might be without the presence of vintage Holland — and even if precise roles beyond Wade Davis as the closer aren’t yet as settled as last year’s dominating dynamics.
In a certain way, understanding the extent of the injury is liberating for Yost, who may have let an intense sense of loyalty sway his decisions if Holland weren’t certifiably injured.
Meanwhile, Holland knows, too, that he needs to get better.
As proud and gritty as he is, acknowledging that must have been excruciating. Because in some way, to him, the words probably felt more like a surrender than a necessary concession.
That’s why Holland kept going and going and going, even fending off the Royals’ wishes that he get an MRI when Yost said “we knew there were changes in his elbow.”
“They suggested me getting one; I told them I didn’t want to,” he said. “I didn’t want the burden if something was wrong.”
Something, of course, was, as they learned definitively when Holland agreed to an MRI on Aug. 31.
Even so, he insisted he still could be effective.
He’d earned enough clout and credibility over the years that the Royals wanted to give him a chance — especially knowing that his success has been predicated almost as much on moxie as skill.
“It’s just a testament to his competitiveness and his toughness as a baseball player to spit in the eye of this thing and continue to battle through it,” Yost said.
Indeed, the upside of the Royals’ whopping lead in the American League Central these last few weeks was that they could let these things play themselves out some.
Even if that meant abiding a state of flux.
In fact, continuing to pitch Holland might be Exhibit A in why it was more important to be taking inventory amid a 9-13 September than it was to be consumed with winning each game.
Some might make the case that Holland did his team a disservice by insisting he could still help, something that no longer could be hoped for after the drubbing he absorbed last week in Detroit and as the postseason looms.
“We’re at a point in our season,” Yost said, “where we can’t afford a hiccup.”
But Holland had to be made to stop pitching, and that’s a fitting tribute to who he is even if a more pragmatic approach might have benefited the Royals sooner.
Expecting him to willingly hand over the ball assumes that Holland could simply turn off the very switch that makes him who he is — at least in the context of being a ballplayer and vital part of something bigger than him.
The thing is, those forces are inseparable in him.
“It’s something I owed my teammates to try to work through and get back to where we were last year,” he said, later adding, “If you’re worried about your health when you’re on the mound, you’re bound to fail.”
Spoken like the guy whose most memorable pitching experience in a rare high school appearance was having to get his jaw wired shut after his face was smashed by a catcher’s pickoff throw.
Still, he loved the game and became an unrecruited-but-undaunted walk-on infielder at Western Carolina University, where he ultimately was converted to pitcher and showed enough potential to be drafted by the Royals in the 10th round in 2007.
Holland always loved to compete because he “never knew where that limitation would be,” he said in 2013.
That spurred a relentless mind-set that accounts both for his emergence as an All-Star and the conundrum he represented the last few months.
Pitching with some blend of distress and agony and obvious deterioration for weeks and weeks, Holland nonetheless registered 32 saves in 37 attempts this year — good numbers in and of themselves.
But other numbers emphatically said otherwise.
His bloated ERA (3.83) was more than triple that of his 2013 ERA (1.21), and the jarring drop in velocity and alarming penchant for ushering men on base all added up to bracing yourself every time he pitched.
So now Holland is at a time in his baseball career where it really may never get harder for him.
But at least you can hope he understands this.
“ ‘It’s not your heart; it’s not your desire to win,’ ” Yost told him. “ ‘It’s your arm that’s letting you down.’ ”
And, alas, there’s just no more denying it.