Kiwi pitcher catches eye on debut in the Majors

SAM WORTHINGTON
Last updated 19:19 03/09/2014
John Holdzkom
Photosport
KIWI YANK: John Holdzkom represents New Zealand despite admitting to tenuous links to the country.

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A New Zealand pitcher has created history after being plucked from obscurity to make a fairytale Major League Baseball debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates today.

John Holdzkom, a towering 2.04m reliever, became the first NZ international representative to play in the world's best baseball league when he took the mound in the eighth inning of a 6-4 loss to the St Louis Cardinals.

The 26-year-old struck out the side (Peter Bourjos, Kolten Wong and Matt Carpenter) in front of 43,693 fans, less than three months after he had been toiling away in front of a handful of spectators for San Angelo in United League Baseball. Holdzkom was only called up to the Pirates' 40-man squad yesterday.

A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette headline described his story as ''one for the ages.'' ''Honestly, I was just kind of numb, I wasn't too emotional,'' Holdzkom said.

''It has slowly been seeping into my blood stream as I soak this in, to be honest. I mean, I started out in San Angelo, which is in dead-central Texas and there [isn't] much going on there, and it is pretty crazy when you think about it.

''But I'm happy where this journey has taken me to say the least.''

Canadian-born pitcher Scott Richmond became the first NZ citizen to play in the MLB when he took the mound for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2008.

Holdzkom is American-born but has a Kiwi father.

He and brother Lincoln turned out for the NZ Diamondblacks at the 2012 World Baseball Classic and delighted Baseball NZ chief executive Ryan Flynn expected them to continue playing internationally.

''You couldn't ask for a better start,'' Flynn said.

''It does not happen, that in 90 days you go from one of the lowest independent leagues in America, to the major leagues - this is a movie. It is an amazing story of a guy that just didn't give up.

''He's had to battle through a lot of road trips, small towns, little teams. We've had a few come close to the MLB but this is a big breakthrough.''

Flynn believed Holdzkom would be earning a pro-rata share of MLB's US$500,000 minimum salary.

The Pirates are third in the National League's central division and in the playoff race with a 71-67 record.

''It is a really cool story actually,'' said Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle.

''He pitched in the independent league, he pitched for Team New Zealand in the past, he's really tall with a big downhill angle and a hard cutter that plays in the upper 90s [between 155-160km/hr].

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''And he has a palm ball, an old-time palm ball that plays like a splitter and he also throws the splitter. He is a two-three-pitch guy that has shown good angle, velocity and power. He is the only guy I know that [throws a palm ball] right now.''

Pirates catcher Russell Martin was blown away by Holdzkom.

''It's overpowering stuff,'' Martin said.

''I was handcuffed trying to catch him so I can't imagine what it's like trying to hit him. I don't know what it was ... palmball, splitter, whatever. All I know, it was nasty.''

Holdzkom was a fourth-round pick of the New York Mets in the 2006 MLB first-year player draft, playing four seasons in the Mets system.

He has since toiled away with the Bakersfield Blaze, Amarillo Sox, Sioux City Explorers, Canberra Cavalry and Adelaide Bite before this year's remarkable rise.

''Pitching in a big league stadium is every pitcher's dream,'' Holdzkom said.

''I tried to tell myself that it's no different than any other game. You have to have the same mental approach.''

Pittsburgh are back in action early tomorrow morning (NZT) against the 75-63 Cardinals at St Louis' Busch Stadium.

- Stuff

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