ATHENS — Heath Holder rubbed his right elbow with his left thumb, unintentionally pointing to one of his greatest struggles.
“[I] felt pain every single day,” Holder said. “It was a mind over matter thing. I couldn’t let myself believe it was torn.”
Holder, a redshirt senior on the University of Georgia baseball team, underwent Tommy John surgery on June 5, 2014, after getting an MRI on his pitching arm. It revealed “one of the worst ever seen” by Mike Dillon, UGA’s associate director of sports medicine.
After a year and three months of rehabilitation and working his way back to the Georgia bullpen, Holder began his fifth and final fall with the Bulldogs this week. His hope is to once again become a weekend starter.
Not so long ago, he was expecting even more.
“We all plan to come here and be here for three years and go play pro ball,” Holder said. “But it doesn’t always work out that way.”
During his junior year, Holder, or “Heater” as his coaches refer to him, was a true utility man, working as an outfielder, first-baseman and relief pitcher, and he has been two-way contributor since his freshman season.
In his seven relief appearances during the 2014 season, Holder did not give up a run in five of them. He pitched against Georgia Tech at Turner Field just 23 days before his surgery.
“Two years ago he pitched some for us and was successful and he had a broken arm. He basically had bit his lip since he was 12 years old,” Georgia coach Scott Stricklin said. “When they went in and did the MRI on his elbow, it was tore up. And he was successful with a bad elbow.”
During his redshirt season, the team had a losing 26-28 season, scraping together a 10-19 season in the Southeastern Conference.
“The hardest time would be just losing,” Holder said. “Seriously. I’ve been here for four years and l look back on my record and see that I have a losing record overall. That’s pretty hard.”
To make matters more difficult, he had to watch his team and his teammates lose while sitting in the dugout.
Since he couldn’t directly change what was happening on the field, Holder did what he could to help the players who could. He was intentional about pulling his teammates aside to give them confidence boosts.
Holder and fellow fifth-year senior Mike Mancuso—the oldest and tallest members of the team— have a vast amount of familiarity with Georgia baseball, which is unique on the 2015 squad that rosters 18 newcomers and 17 returning lettermen. The two have seen coaching changes and multiple losing streaks.
But they’ve also seen an enthusiastic victory over South Carolina in 2013 and teammates’ dreams come true in early June.
“That’s what you want in every ball club: experience,” pitching coach Fred Corral said. “And experience starts with guys learning the process. And both of them have learned the process pretty well.”
The surgery not only rearranged Holder’s timeline but put a new outlook on it, according to Corral. Where most guys look beyond their time at Georgia to their hopeful future in the major leagues, Holder had to take baseball on a day-by-day basis.
“It’s always simply a perspective,” Corral said. “For the elite, it’s not a tough thing. Heater in the last year has shown an elite mentality to get where he needed to be.”
Holder played for the Lexington Blowfish in the Coastal Plain League during the summer of 2015. On June 24, just over a year out from his surgery, Holder threw a no-hitter.
Now back at Foley Field the lanky Holder broke a smile talking about the pitching rotation and the 2015-2016 season.
“It’s what I’ve worked 15 months for and just to actually be back out here feels unreal,” Holder said.