College Sports

A year after his face was 'shattered,' this O'Fallon grad is among nation's best pitchers

O'Fallon graduate Chris Holba, a junior right-hander at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., emerged as one of the top pitchers in the country after a frightening injury last season forced him to miss more than one month. The St. Louis Cardinals selected him in the 11th round of the MLB draft Wednesday.
O'Fallon graduate Chris Holba, a junior right-hander at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., emerged as one of the top pitchers in the country after a frightening injury last season forced him to miss more than one month. The St. Louis Cardinals selected him in the 11th round of the MLB draft Wednesday. Provided by the East Carolina University athletic department

One year ago, Chris Holba was wondering — and worrying — about his future.

These days, Holba can't be stopped.

The 2015 graduate of O'Fallon High School, a junior right-hander on the East Carolina University baseball team in Greenville, N.C., is 8-0 with a 1.52 ERA in nine starts.

Last week, USA Baseball included Holba on its 40-man midseason Golden Spikes Award Watch List. The award is presented annually to the top amateur player in the country.

The news was particularly gratifying after what happened April 7, 2017. That's when Holba, pitching against the Houston Cougars, received the scare of his life. A second-inning line drive off the bat of Jake Scheiner fractured the orbital bone above Holba's right eye.

"I had to spend the night in the hospital, flew back with the team and got surgery," Holba recalled this week. "They ended up putting three plates and a bunch of screws in there, and I missed a month to two months of the season.

"I wasn't supposed to come back that season, but I was able to convince the doctors to let me wear kind of like a protective shield; I think they use it in some softball games. It looked dumb, but I just wore it over my hat and was able to pitch with that."

Holba returned May 16 against visiting Campbell and earned the victory despite allowing two runs in a one-inning relief appearance. Thirty-nine days of anxiety came to an end.

"My trainer asked me if I needed to see a therapist (before pitching again)," Holba said. "I hadn't really thought about it. I just wanted to get back out there."

Holba pitched in four more games, but wasn't himself as he permitted seven earned runs in 4 2/3 innings. He finished 4-2 with a 3.38 ERA in 14 games. Prior to the injury, Holba had been 3-1 with a 1.95 ERA.

Fourth-year East Carolina coach Cliff Godwin, whose team is 27-9, said many players would have been down for the count had they suffered an injury similar to the one to Holba.

"Chris had his face shattered," Godwin said. "He had like 18 fractures in his orbital area. That was a nasty injury. But of all the guys I've ever coached, I think Chris was probably the one that was most well-equipped to handle it. He comes from a military background, so he's a pretty tough kid. He handled it and took it in stride.

"It's made Chris better. He had to handle the adversity last year. He's been very mature this year about the way he goes about his business — and not just on game day."

Holba, 21, can still see the ball approaching him at more than 100 mph. He went down immediately after being struck, but did not lose consciousness.

"I remember thinking I wish I did, because I was in so much pain," Holba said. "My initial concern was that I had lost my eye. My right eye swelled up right away, so I thought it had blinded my right eye. But thankfully, there have been no vision issues from it."

Psychologically, Holba understands an injury like the one he suffered doesn't occur often. There's always risk, of course, but people drive cars and fly in airplanes every day, too.

"Usually, you can get the glove up or the hand up to protect you," Holba said. "It was just a fluke and hopefully it doesn't happen again. Everything's all good."

Determined, dominant

Returning to the mound so quickly after such a frightful injury underscored the resolve possessed by Holba, who was born in Sindelfingen, Germany, to parents Bob and Jane Holba.

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Chris Holba was 8-0 with a 1.52 ERA in his first nine starts this season at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. East Carolina athletics photo

His health restored, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Holba, an economics and security studies major, has been a model of consistency. He hasn't allowed more than two runs in any of his starts. Holba has walked more than two just once, and he owns three eight-strikeout performances.

"It's been a good year for all of us," Holba said. "Not to be cheesy, but I have a really good team around me. We have a really good defense, which makes my job a lot easier. I can fill the (strike) zone more, not nibble as much and trust my defense. I don't know how many double plays they've turned for me this year, but especially up the middle, they've been really good.

"This is a really cohesive group, very selfless. We have that next-man-up mentality. It's been a fun group to be a part of just because they've been such great teammates. The more you can count on your teammates' success, the less you worry about your own."

Holba is the Pirates' Friday-night starter, a spot reserved for college aces. One of Holba's victories was a 15-2 decision against South Florida left-hander Shane McClanahan, a redshirt sophomore expected to be among the top 10 picks in the amateur draft in June.

"Chris has been just a staple in our rotation this year," Godwin said. "He started out in the Sunday slot, but now he's moved into the Friday-night role. To be honest, it's because of his mentality and his toughness. He's able to manage the game and pitch (well) even when he doesn't have his best stuff. That's what Friday-night guys have to be able to do.

"In high school, you don't have nine hitters that are going to make you pay for a mistake. In college, you've got nine hitters that are going to make you pay for a mistake. You have to learn how to win when you don't feel your best, when you don't have all your pitches (working). That's what Chris has been so good at this year."

Holba has maturity beyond his years. He isn't distracted or thrown off course by the ups and downs of the game. He's like an investor seeking long-term gains.

"The biggest difference from high school is just being more consistent with my preparation," Holba said. "I always say my confidence will never come from my results. It's always my preparation. I won't ride the inconsistencies of relying on results. As long as I'm consistent with my preparation, that's where my confidence is going to come from."

Holba said he didn't get carried away with being on the Golden Spikes Award Watch list. Recent winners include major-leaguers Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant and Andrew Benintendi.

"It's definitely a nice honor," he said. "Individual recognition is nice and it's good for our program, but it's not our ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal is to host a regional, host a super-regional and win a national championship."

Mix speeds, change locations

Holba works between 88 and 92 mph with a four- and one-seam fastball. He also throws a combination of a slider and curveball — he calls it a "slurve" — and a changeup.

"I know I don't throw upper-90s, so mixing speeds and locating pitches are really important with me," Holba said. "That's the mentality we try to have with our whole staff."

Holba is a capable strikeout pitcher, but prefers to get outs early in counts.

"He can strike you out, but he's a ground-ball pitcher, a guy looking for soft contact on the ground," Godwin said. "He's a guy that can get double plays and all that good stuff."

Because he has a plan, Holba works speedily, which keeps his defenders sharp. But his presence on the mound also fires the offense. The Pirates have scored 93 runs for Holba, including 12 against North Carolina, 18 against Maryland and 12 against Central Florida and the aforementioned 15 against South Florida.

"When Chris is on the mound, it takes pressure off the offense because they feel like he's going to pitch really well," Godwin said. "Chris has a good pace about him. He gets the ball and he's pitching. He's filling up the zone and not walking a ton of people. He's got three pitches he can throw for strikes, and when he's really on, he can throw them at any time."

Holba was recommended to Godwin by Althoff High graduate Brett Huber in the summer of 2014 when Holba pitched for the St. Louis Pirates and Huber was the team's pitching coordinator. Godwin was the hitting coach at Mississippi when Huber was a pitcher at Ole Miss, where he set a school record with 38 saves from 2010-13.

Huber said Holba was an advanced talent the summer before his senior year at O'Fallon.

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After having bones around his right eye fracutred by a line drive, O'Fallon graduate Chris Holba returned to the pitcher's mound for East Carolina University wearing a protective shield. Provided

"He was between 83 and 85 (mph), but he had really good movement on his fastball," Huber said. "He had good sink and his command with the fastball was visibly better than a lot of kids in high school at that time. He could go in and out, to both sides of the plate.

"And his slider was really good. It's difficult for some guys that have that three-quarters arm slot to have the slider that he did. So he had an above-average slider at that time, and in the summer (of 2014), it slowly got better and some Division I schools got interested in him. "In the fall, he made a really big jump. He went to 88 to 90 every time he was out there and was just cruising through innings. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was unbelievable."

East Carolina landed the prize.

"He's as respectful a kid as you'll meet," Godwin said of Holba, a "yes-sir" type who became one of Godwin's first recruits. "We were very lucky to get him to East Carolina."

The next chapter

Godwin is preparing for life without Holba. The MLB amateur draft is June 4-6.

"His dream is to play professional baseball," Godwin said. "If I'm a professional team, I'm going to take him. Just look at his numbers. He's not going to blow you away with velocity, but he knows how he get people out. If I'm a scout, I'm taking him."

One scenario could have Holba being selected, but opting to return to East Carolina for his senior season, using the year to refine his skill and boost his stock.

"I think somebody's definitely going to take a chance on him this year," Godwin said. "Then it will be Chris' decision whether he wants to go out this year or come back for another year. Whatever Chris' decision is, we'll support 100 percent."

Holba said it's "too soon to tell" what will happen with the draft.

"I just want to give my team a chance every Friday to win," he said. "I don't really have any personal goals other than for our team to win a national championship. We've put ourselves in a good position."

David Wilhelm: 618-239-2665; @DavidMWilhelm
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