By Jaylon Thompson
It’s 10:30 pm on a Friday night.
While most people are out enjoying the start of their weekend, a light burns from Foley Field. It’s been hours since the Georgia Bulldogs defeated Georgia Southern 4-1 earlier in the day.
At first glance, it looks like a light that the grounds crew forgot to turn off. This is not the case. Instead, it was a player preparing for an opportunity four years in the making.
Georgia senior pitcher Heath Holder, or “Heater” to his teammates, knows all about preparation. He has spent the last 21 months rehabilitating his right elbow that required Tommy John surgery. It hasn’t been easy. Hours of exercises–weightlifting, bullpen sessions and long toss have lead to this moment.
In 15 hours, Holder will start for the Georgia Bulldogs as a pitcher. This is his dream and now it is a reality.
“It is just visualizing that moment, getting the sign from the catcher, and just being in the moment to create that surrounding,” Holder said.
Holder got a no-decision against Georgia Southern. He pitched 6 and ⅔ innings and surrendered three runs. He also had three strikeouts. It wasn’t favorable, but Holder was finally the starter he dreamed to be.
Holder grew up about 30 minutes away in the city of Loganville, Ga. He was a top athlete from a young age. His talent was seen by all including teammate Cody McCance.
“He was the biggest player, had the biggest arm and had the biggest pop on the field,” McCance said. I remember playing against him when we were 12-13 years old. He was playing centerfield and if it was a base hit to centerfield, he would throw you out at first base.”
Holder’s parents, Don and Kim Holder, also took notice. They allowed Holder to achieve his goals by making it a family dynamic.
“He didn’t really have a summer vacation that he could get off,” Mrs. Holder said. “He was always working to get better at baseball. We really didn’t have time to go to the beach during spring break so we made it like an extended family and made it work.”
Eventually, Major League Baseball discovered Holder. The Colorado Rockies selected Holder as a 50th round pick. Holder declined and instead signed with the Georgia Bulldogs. He felt he still needed to improve and believed that Georgia gave him the best chance.
During his freshman year, Holder didn’t play a lot. He appeared in 11 games and was designated as a utility player. It wasn’t for lack of skill, he had to wait his turn. Holder accepted the role and felt that it would help him grow. However, it didn’t come without several teaching moments.
“There was a lot of pains,” Holder said. “My front right tooth, I had it chipped and repaired three times from taking ground balls off the mouth. It took me probably a full year and there wasn’t a practice where I didn’t take two or three balls off the face or stomach.”
For two years, Holder was an infielder and an outfielder. He also pitched from the bullpen and eventually grew into the team’s leader. In the process, Holder re-kindled his passion to be a pitcher and it lead to a difficult decision.
Holder was dealing with a bad elbow for years. It bothered him pitching but not in the field. The doctors said if he wanted to pitch, he would need Tommy John surgery. He talked it over with family and decided to get the procedure. The surgery sidelined him with a medical redshirt.
While redshirting, Holder learned a lot from Georgia head coach Scott Stricklin. He started to see the game as a pitcher and became proficient with the terminology. This prompted Stricklin to pull him aside one day.
“I told him we don’t have to make this decision today or tomorrow, but we have to start thinking about what best for you in your future,” Stricklin said.
Stricklin wanted Holder to focus on one position.
“I think everyone got on the same page that his best position is a pitcher,” Stricklin said.
This season, Holder has secured a spot in the rotation. He is the Saturday starter most weekends. While he doesn’t know what the future holds, he plans on finishing his Agribusiness degree and winning a championship.
“I still have four months here and I dream of going to Omaha,” Holder said. “I’m trying to set out and accomplish what I can here and help this team. “Everything will work out in the end.”
Just as the light burned on that Friday night, the passion of being a pitcher still burns inside of Heath Holder.