After a roller-coaster 2018 season – with near-constant shuttling between the minor and major leagues and starting and relief appearances, Clay Holmes has settled into a comfortable relief role with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The results show it, too.
The 2011 Slocomb graduate and ninth-round pick of the Pirates continued a strong recent surge Tuesday night, pitching two perfect innings with four strikeouts and earning his second major league win – and first since last July 14 – during a 5-1 Pirate win over the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park in Pittsburgh.
“I am starting to really enjoy that there is a chance I could play every day,” Holmes told the Dothan Eagle in a Wednesday afternoon interview. “I am in good spot and I am enjoying the process of getting ready every day to pitch.”
He added a win to his record on Tuesday, thanks to his strong performance, a rain delay and a major league rule.
Pirate starter Joe Musgrove went only three innings because of a two-hour, five-minute rain delay. Pittsburgh then used five relievers, four of whom went one inning with Holmes pitching the sixth and seventh innings.
Per MLB rules, a starter must go five innings to pick up a pitching win if his team is leading when he leaves. Since Pittsburgh led from start to finish and the starter didn’t go the required length, by MLB rule 9.17(a), “the official scorer shall credit as the winning pitcher the relief pitcher, if there is only one relief pitcher, or the relief pitcher who, in the official scorer’s judgment was the most effective, if there is more than one relief pitcher.”
Because of his two perfect innings with four strikeouts, Holmes was deemed the most effective.
The Pirate reliever said “it didn’t cross my mind” that he was the winning pitcher.
“I found out when my mom texted me afterwards,” Holmes said, noting his parents watch most of the games through the internet. “She said, ‘Congratulations on the win, too.’ That is when I found out. It is always good to contribute in that type of way.”
Holmes struck out all three batters he faced in the sixth inning. In the seventh, he struck out Cubs’ all-star Kris Bryant, fielded a bunt by Anthony Rizzo and threw him out before finishing the inning with a groundout by Javier Baez.
“Last night was one of those nights where my sinker was probably at its best. The action was there and I was getting swings and misses,” said Holmes, a sinker ball specialist. “When I do that typically, I am ahead in the counts and can use my off speed as well. It was one of those nights where everything was working.”
The performance continued a recent strong surge. In his last nine outings back to a June 8 game at Milwaukee, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Holmes has thrown 10 1/3 innings and allowed only three earned runs (2.61 earned run average) and six hits, while striking out 13 and walking only four.
That comes after mostly rough outings to start the year, when he amassed a 5.28 earned run average over 15 1/3 innings in nine games with 14 hits and 11 walks.
One of the keys to the improvement has been getting ahead in the counts early and cutting down his walks.
“As of late, I have been able to throw the off-speed pitches for strikes pretty consistently, so it takes pressure of the sinker when the days the control of the sinker isn’t there,” Holmes said.
After starting most of his minor league career and also in his appearances last year with the Pirates, Holmes has been used strictly as a reliever this year. All 18 appearances have been out of the bullpen, mostly one-inning performances, though he has gone multiple innings in seven games.
“As a starter, you know when you will pitch and you can prepare yourself mentally for that, but as a reliever you have to be ready every day,” Holmes said. “It is just finding joy in the process of getting ready to pitch every day. You learn to enjoy the preparation and enjoy what it takes to get ready for when your name is called.”
It is a role he is starting to relish.
“I am kind of settling into a role here in the bullpen,” Holmes said. “I have been fortunate to throw in some good spots now and it is nice to always help contribute to the team win.”