Holliman Hoping to Build on Momentum

Mark Holliman (STAFF PHOTO)

If there was one lesson Chicago Cubs pitching prospect Mark Holliman learned in 2008 it was how quickly things can snowball. The right-hander, who posted 10 victories and the lowest ERA of any full-season Cubs minor league starting pitcher in 2007, got off to an up and down start at Class AAA Iowa this past season and then things went south in a hurry.

Just a month into the season, Holliman was back at Class AA Tennessee and a few weeks after that he was demoted to the bullpen for the better part of the next two months.

After making four starts at Tennessee, Holliman's ERA had skyrocketed to 8.66 – the highest total the 25-year-old right-hander and Cubs third-round pick from Mississippi in the 2005 draft had ever sported in three years with Chicago's farm system.

But Holliman eventually finished up 3-4 with a 4.50 ERA in 86 innings at Tennessee, and he says the move to the bullpen turned out to be beneficial.

"It got me back on a good stretch to finish up the season," said Holliman. "When it first happened, I wasn't too excited and was a little upset. But in the end it turned out to be a great thing.

"I was kind of struggling a little bit and that was just kind of a way to get back into the rhythm of things. We were just trying to figure out something."

What Holliman eventually figured out was the right approach to "the mental game." He admits he had a tendency to pace himself early in games when he was starting, and that coming out of the bullpen afforded him the opportunity to slow down and put things into perspective.

"The approach that I took toward the end of the year (was) take it inning by inning and not think about the whole game," said Holliman. "You just have to take things from the first pitch to the first batter to the third out of that inning and then refocus after that inning instead of going out and trying to do it all from the very beginning."

The approach paid off.

Holliman seemed to be a different pitcher in the second half, showing signs of his oft-dominant form from the previous year. He went 3-1 with a 3.32 ERA in 10 appearances after the Southern League All-Star break, striking out 41 batters in 40-2/3 innings in that span.

"The toughest thing was I wasn't able to get into a rhythm early on and I felt like I was trying to do too many different things and trying to fix too many different things," said Holliman.

"I was struggling a little bit throwing strikes here and there (in the first-half), but there wasn't one specific pitch that I was really working on," he added. "It was just really about getting out there and competing hard and not worrying about anything else, or what my mechanics were doing."

Being paired again with Smokies pitching coach Dennis Lewallyn, who helped guide Holliman to 10 wins and a 3.57 ERA in 160-plus innings the previous year at Double-A, also paid its dividends, he said.

"He just knows the game really well and he's done it for so long and has different ways of explaining things that really hit home and make you think," Holliman said. "It makes you figure out what you're doing and what you need to do differently."

"I wouldn't say there was one specific thing; it was just being able to work with him over the course of a few months and kind of get back on track that way. "

Holliman is hoping to carry his second-half momentum with him into next spring. He'd like another chance to show the Cubs that he can compete at Triple-A after his last stint there abruptly ended.

Holliman showed some promise at Iowa, tossing six shutout innings and fanning six batters in a start against Nashville (a Brewers affiliate) on April 14. He then turned in a quality start 10 days later against Memphis (a Cardinals affiliate) by lasting 6-1/3 innings and allowing three runs.

It was the other three starts at Iowa that did him in as Holliman failed to make it past the fifth inning in those appearances and was removed twice after just three innings. Thus he finished with a plus-five ERA in 22-2/3 innings there.

"Obviously there are a few things I'll take from last year to start next year and figure it out; things that I'm going to do different and things I need to work on," Holliman said. "Depending on how each season goes and what you do, you learn a lot about yourself and what you need to work on to be able to compete at the next level.

"Getting the opportunity to go to Triple-A really gives me a good idea of what it's like and the things I need to work on to be able to compete at that level on a daily basis."

The Cubs say Holliman's 2008 season does not deter his prospect status.

"It's not how you start, it's how you finish," Cubs Vice President of Player Personnel Oneri Fleita said of Holliman. "He's always been healthy and works hard, therefore all he really needs is time and patience."

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