Miller Matthews won’t soon forget last week.
The Gulfport eighth-grader was hanging out in the Admirals’ indoor batting cage when GHS coach Jamie McMahon told him to get his catcher’s mitt.
“He said, ‘I want you to catch Jonathan,’” Matthews recalled Monday. “I said, who’s Jonathan?’ And he said Jonathan Holder.”
Matthews’ eyes lit up as he saw the high school’s first major leaguer standing on the field awaiting his catch partner.
It was an exciting moment for the young Admiral, an up-and-coming player for McMahon.
“I was nervous at first. He’s a Yankee so he throws pretty hard,” Matthews said. “We threw a little bit and then he threw me a couple different pitches. It was great.”
Holder, a pitcher who lives in Gulfport during the offseason, has been a regular at his alma mater this winter, prepping for spring training.
Because Holder isn’t guaranteed a roster spot on Opening Day, he’s readying himself for battle to make the New York Yankees out of camp. Holder has also been motivating the next generation of Admirals, working out with players like Matthews at the field.
“This is the same mitt,” Matthews said, holding up his glove with Holder warming up 10 yards behind him. “It was very different catching him than the other guys.”
For many of the young Gulfport baseball players, just being around Holder as he goes through his workout regimen was a treat.
“They try to talk to him a little bit, but they’re almost scared to talk to him,” McMahon said. “They watch him to see what he does more than anything.”
For McMahon, having a player like Holder around the field is a no-brainer.
“He’s an unbelievable person, and that’s why I like him to be around the guys, so they can see how he works and goes about his business,” he said. “When he comes out here and plays catch, it’s business. Most guys, they’re chatting; when he plays catch he’s playing catch.
“I like our guys to see the focus and purpose side of it; every throw you make and pitch you throw how important it is to be out here. When you work, you’re working.”
Holder donned the iconic Yankees cap with a maroon Mississippi State hooded sweatshirt while he warmed up Monday. Clouds rippled overhead at Gulfport’s field, painting a picturesque image. Once ready to throw, Holder ditched the hoodie and met up with senior Ethan Saucier. The two long-tossed for a while before Holder moved in closer to throw. Fastballs at first, then Holder mixed in some curveballs.
Saucier knew the first breaking ball was coming but couldn’t help jump out of his crouch with a yelp — muddled under his mask — as the ball broke downward, clanking off the mitt. That was perhaps the lone hiccup of Saucier’s most memorable game of catch in his lifetime.
“I was kind of nervous. I thought he was going to bring the heat on me,” Saucier said. “That’s nothing like I’ve ever seen — not at the high school level. It was ridiculous. ... It was fun. I never thought I’d ever catch a Major League pitcher.”
Fun for everyone
Holder gets a kick out of tossing with the young players. Inevitably, he gives each one a little bit of an encouraging pep talk before beginning: We’re just playing catch, no big deal.
“All the kids look up to you when you come back, knowing that you come from a place like this,” Holder said. “... I try to emphasize to all these guys that I was in their shoes one day and some good timing and hard work put together paid off.”
Last year was a wild one for Holder. A sixth-round draft choice out of Mississippi State in 2014, Holder pitched in the low minors for much of 2014 and ’15. His career took off last year as he rapidly rose from High-A (4 IP, 0.00 ERA, 7 K) to Double-A (41 IP, 2.20 ERA, 59 K) and then Triple-A (20 1/3 IP, 0.89 ERA, 35 K), where he struck out 12 of the 13 batters he faced in his final appearance. Holder was supposed to pitch at Rochester on Sept. 1, but was pulled from the lineup.
“I came in the locker room after the game. We won and were celebrating and the coaches pulled me and a couple other guys into the office and said, ‘Congratulations you’re going up,’” Holder said. “From there I don’t really remember much, honestly. I went into kind of a blackout I guess.”
The Yankees didn’t waste any time testing out the new right-hander, getting him into the lineup at Baltimore on Sept. 2.
“Five innings of sitting on the bench. Then they called down and said ‘Holder has the next inning,’ and I was like ‘whoooo, here we go!’ Holder said.
He made the most of his debut, pitching a perfect sixth inning that included striking out the first batter he faced, star Adam Jones, on a 94 mile-per-hour fastball. (Jones jokingly tried to swipe the ball as the catcher tossed the souvenir into the dugout).
“I was nervous in the bullpen warming up,” Holder said. “And then when I stepped out of the gate to run in, it was just like any other game I’d ever run in. I guess when I went in they said congratulations over the intercom, and it kind of sunk in. And then it was back to baseball.”
Holder shook off the idea that the moment was like “For The Love of the Game,” where Kevin Costner’s character, Billy Chapel, completely tunes out the crowd while — spoiler alert — throwing a perfect game.
“Everyone has their own zone and I was in my zone,” Holder said. “Not necessarily tunnel vision, but I was in my own place.”
Holder ended up pitching 8 1/3 innings for the Yankees down the stretch as the team looked to give prospects a chance to prove themselves. Although Holder had a 5.40 ERA, the eight appearances marked what he called the “craziest year of my life.”
“The most adrenaline and things happening at once,” he said. “Making it to the big leagues is something that everybody dreams of. They say that’s the best day of your life. And then you get married and you’re like, ‘I don’t know which one was better?’ Of course it was getting married (put that in the paper).
“Emotionally, it was a roller coaster.”
So what’s next?
Holder will head to Tampa, Florida, on Jan. 16 to begin working out in preparation for the start of spring training on Feb. 13.
With his debut out of the way, Holder will be able to focus on making the club out of camp.
“It’s definitely go down there and you have to earn a job,” Holder said. “I feel like I have prepared myself the best way that I can to go down there and do my best. Whatever happens, happens. Every day I just strive to get better somewhere.”
Before Holder can head south for spring, however, he’s got a couple more games of catch lined up.