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Pirates' John Holdzkom on life on baseball's margins, and why he doesn't want to overthink his game

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Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

I caught up with John Holdzkom at Huntington Park in Columbus Tuesday afternoon. The outline of Holdzkom's remarkable story is well known, but if you need a refresher, here are the basics: Holdzkom was the Mets' fourth-round pick in 2006, but he struggled, missed the 2009 season due to Tommy John surgery, got released, and briefly resurfaced with the Reds. He then signed on for winter ball in Australia, suited up for New Zealand in a qualifying tournament for the World Baseball Classic, and played plenty of independent-league baseball, making three-digit monthly salaries while trying to get another shot in the minors. The Pirates gave him one after they found him playing in Texas, and he ended up in the bigs just months later, striking out the side in his big-league debut and making the Bucs' playoff roster. Now he's back with Indianapolis, awaiting another shot. He's struggled with his control in his first few outings there -- most notably, he walked three batters (and struck out three) in an inning on Monday.

What are the attitudes of most players in independent ball? Are they trying to get to the minor leagues? Are they trying to get to the majors? Are they just trying to have fun? What are they doing, as far as a career?

Probably all three of those. There's definitely a bunch of guys that know that they probably aren't going to get any phone calls from teams, but they just love to play baseball, you know? Then there's some guys that still have the talent, and they're trying to get signed. For the most part, obviously, the foundation is that everyone just really loves baseball. It's a hard game to give up when you've put so much time into it.

Where did you fall on that spectrum?

I still loved baseball a lot, and I knew I still had talent to go a little bit further. At least that's what I told myself. The foundation, like I said, was love for baseball and not wanting to give up, and then also hoping for another chance with an affiliated club.

Did you ever consider a career outside baseball?

No.

Just keep going?

Yeah. I went to college briefly, but that was about it. [I] wanted to play again.

I was here last summer, and you always seemed to be working with a coach off by yourself. Did you get a sense, while you were here or at some point before that, that you were being groomed for something?

No. You really don't know much of what the organization is thinking, so you just try to approach it as business as usual.

What was the stadium experience like in Australia, and what's being a baseball player like there as compared to here?

It's a real niche sport, you know. You could tell someone you meet at a restaurant or something that you're here to play baseball for the local team, and they don't even know it exists. There's definitely not a whole lot of hype or publicity around the sport. It's growing, but it's not ingrained in the culture the way it is here.

How big are the stadiums?

I pitched in the Australian championship game [in] early 2013. That had the most fans. I want to say it was maybe 5,000. Usually it's high hundreds, low thousands.

As far as what changed for you last year, why you suddenly started throwing strikes, I know you've minimized the grip change as the reason. What was the big difference?

I think it was just repetitions. That's all I can really say. I'm wary to say that I've ever actually figured it out.

If you start to think you've figured it out, that's when you start to lose it, right?

Exactly. So it's really just repetitions, knowing how to go about your business on a day-to-day schedule, [and] staying focused, because obviously, it's a long season, and every outing matters.

But you wouldn't chalk it up to a mechanical thing, or anything like that.

No, nothing I can really put my finger on.

But it was a sudden change?

I mean, last year was the most command I ever had, so I guess it was pretty sudden. It was the first time I really could command my pitches consistently day-in and day-out. So last year was definitely a new thing for me in terms of pitching with a lot more confidence.

Does it help not to think about it that deeply, maybe?

Definitely. The simpler you make it, the better. You don't really want to think about mechanics when you're pitching. You just want to get the sign and throw the ball.

When you had your great debut with the Pirates, what went through your head during that outing and then afterwards?

I really didn't expect to pitch that day, so I wasn't putting too much pressure on myself. So when they told me I was in, I didn't have any time to freak out. I remember jogging in from the bullpen, I'm like, 'Well, I guess here I am -- it's the major leagues. It's pretty awesome.' And then afterwards, obviously, I was really happy. It went well. You'll always remember your first outing in the big leagues. [After the] outing, it really sunk in.