PITTSBURGH — Clay Holmes was called up to the Pirates for the first time on Sunday in Detroit, as the 26th man for the second half of the team’s doubleheader with the Tigers.
On Monday, he got to stay in the majors thanks to Joe Musgrove’s trip to the disabled list. Since then, Holmes has shown up to the clubhouse, put in his pregame work, stood for the national anthem, gone out to the bullpen and been a cheerleader.
Six days later, he’s still waiting to get into a game.
It’s been a tough tightrope to walk for Holmes, whose best shot to see some action would be for a Pirates starter to struggle, and the team is off to a 5-1 start after Thursday’s 5-2 win over the Cincinnati Reds.
So instead, he sits and waits, and tries to stay as fresh as he can despite not having pitched meaningful innings in over a week. That’s sometimes the life of a long reliever, but it’s not as if this turn was completely unexpected.
On one hand, of course, it was. Holmes, who had bene invited to major league camp but sent down early, was already in Indianapolis when he got the call to meet to the team in Detroit.
“It’s not really on your mind with the season just getting started,” Holmes said. “It was definitely a surprise. It’s something we all prepare for. I’m ready and I’m glad to be here.”
But on the other hand, the idea of Holmes coming up and getting his feet wet has been very much a part of the Pirates plans for some time now. After the success that Trevor Williams had starting out in the bullpen in 2017, the Pirates started a program to get their starting pitchers in Triple-A at least one appearance in relief
“I got a couple of relief outings,” Holmes said. “It’s very similar. You just have to know what your body needs and what it takes to get your pitches ready and crisp. As a starter, things are a little different, but at the end of the day, I think as a pitcher, you know what it takes to get your body ready and get your arm going. It’s not much different when you’re in the bullpen.”
At the beginning of the 2018 season, Holmes was ticketed for the Indianapolis rotation, but two more starters– Thursday starter Steven Brault and Tyler Glasnow — were placed into the Pittsburgh bullpen.
Brault got bumped into the starting rotation when Musgrove went down, and he pitched well in a spot start, going five innings while allowing one run on three hits. Brault’s time bouncing back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen has meant he’s had to embrace a flexible attitude, but he also thinks that it’s helped make him a better pitcher.
The path that Williams and Brault have worn is also the one that will likely lead Holmes into a Major League role if he’s able to earn one.
“We like the fastball action,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “We like the spin. We like the development. So this was an opportunity for him, sooner or later, to get involved, get on the mound, make some pitchers, and it could be an opportunity for him to work his way up to this level.”
Holmes pitched in just four Spring Training games, so his 4.91 ERA and 0.75 strikeout to walk ratio, probably don’t mean a whole lot. If he’s able to play up the skills that led him to a 3.59 ERA in 25 games with Indianapolis last year, it’ll probable come from fastball command (he had just 59 walks compared to 99 strikeouts in Triple-A in 2017), and a ground-ball rate that has topped 66 percent in the minors.
“I feel like I was in a really good spot coming out of spring,” Holmes said. “The command of all of my pitches has been there. I’ve been getting ahead in counts, especially at the end of spring. That’s a big thing for me, dominating early counts. My stuff plays a lot better when I’m ahead in counts. If I can do those things, I believe I can be successful anywhere.”
In the short term, Holmes’ biggest task is staying ready to pitch every day. After coming out of the regimented routine of a starter, he’s gone over a week without throwing in a game while at the same time, trying to stay ready to give Hurdle three or more innings on a moment’s notice.
“That’s one of the biggest tasks, keeping yourself crisp,” Holmes said. “As a starter, you know when you’re off the mound, your bullpens and your starts. As a reliever, especially as a long reliever, you don’t really know. So, keeping yourself crisp is probably one of the biggest challenges. It’s good to have these coaches here that know and players here that know that you can ask and talk to and hear those things out versus trying to work those things out for yourself.”
“We’re going to be finding one for him sooner than later,” Hurdle added. “We try not to run these guys any more than four days. I think he’s been down a while. … I think he’s excited about being here and getting the opportunity to pitch.”
Until then, Holmes will go out to the bullpen, cheer on his teammates, and hope that he can find a way to get into the game without it meaning the Pirates are in a bad spot.
“Definitely,” he said. “As long as we’re winning, and I’m not being used, that’s a good thing for the team. When my name’s called, I’ll be ready and be able to help the team.”