Outside the back window of Mississippi State’s team hotel, a dark river runs under a bridge, through the marsh and alongside the Hilton’s back deck and pool.
30, 40, maybe 50 feet across on the other side of the river sits an old dock with an old boat and an even older sign advertising authentic Louisiana swamp tours.
In fact, the Mississippi-born and Gulf Coast-raised pitcher may find he has a bit in common with some of these bayou beasts.
Holder, who struck out a career-high nine batters last night, is an intimidating sight on the mound. Just as fearsome as his looks is his steady, cool countenance, followed by quick attacks as sliders and fastballs come flying from his previously still and watchful stance.
Like the alligators surrounding the city of Lafayette, his move is meditated, quick and deathly strong when the bite comes down.
Gators, the slow-talking Louisiana swamp guides will tell you, are some of the animal kingdom’s most unbeatable creatures. Left on their own, the pre-historic reptiles live to be over 150 years old. There are alligators floating through the bayou today who were sunning in those shallow waters before the Civil War even thought about beginning.
If a gator loses a limb, its body automatically shuts off blood flow to the hurt area. They won’t bleed to death and they’ll live on as if they never needed that part of their scaly flesh anyway. Even if killed, only the tail and snout are worth eating. The meat in the middle of their bodies is so dense, strong and ancient that it will stay red no matter long you cook it. Only the desperately hungry will partake.
The ancient predators are calm under pressure – thriving under it, really – and unperturbed by boats floating by or cameras flashing during tours.
An alligator can take down an entire wild boar in one strike of it’s deadly jaws, though the dinosaur-like dwellers of the shallows can go an entire year without eating.
“So imagine how hungry he is when he sees you,” a Cajun tour guide says with half a smile.
MSU made it to Louisiana on Thursday afternoon, but Holder had to wait until the end of the night Saturday for his first opportunity to strike. Like the gators in the black water, Holder is patient. He doesn’t know when his next chance to eat will come, but he’s always hungry, always waiting.
So when the opportunity comes – and it did Saturday against Jackson State – he’s ready.
“Those are the situations that I love the best,” Holder said, “adrenaline filled.”
In the fourth inning, Holder’s number was called. He stepped onto the mound with the bases loaded and two outs with the game tied at 1-1. If he missed even a little bit, the Tigers could blow the game open. If he hit right, he could save the day.
“Adrenaline is kind of my key,” Holder explained. “When I get to come in for situations that are high-pressure, I feel like my stuff is a little sharper, maybe, and I pound the zone.”
“Where is the game going to be be won or lost,” John Cohen asked himself Saturday. “It was right there.”
And he was right. Holder, as he always has, saved the day, even if he didn’t technically save the game, officially being credited with the win in the final box score.
What else was going to happen? Holder struck the last Tigers batter out, the first of many on the night as he went on to finish the game without allowing a run, throwing 49 strikes in just 65 pitches over 5.1 innings.
“He can lower his heart rate, get in the moment,” Cohen said after the win. “The way [hitters] were reacting to his breaking ball early on, we kind of thought Jonathan’s stuff was gonna be really good. They were late on the fastball, not seeing the breaking ball.”
The Tigers never had a chance, really. JSU hadn’t seen Holder pitch all season and they didn’t know coming in if they’d see him that night, anyway.
“His curveball is unhittable, even if you’ve seen it before,” MSU second baseman Brett Pirtle said. “He’s phenomenal. He just pounds the zone and he trusts his stuff.
“Playing behind him is so much fun,” he continued, “because you know he’s gonna come in and get the job done and you know you have a chance to win the game with him in there.”
Call it a closer or alligator mentality, Holder is always waiting, a placid façade hiding coiled and tensed muscles ready to jump into action at exactly the right moment.
But once on the mound, his mental approach is always the same.
“Be aggressive,” Holder said simply.