Teammates offer encouragement and advice as Holliday adapts to majors

Orioles manager Brandon Hyde just wanted Jackson Holliday to breathe.

What sounds simple and natural is a lot more challenging in a suffocating environment.

Holliday played in his first three major league games and didn’t get a hit in 11 at-bats. Seven of them ended with a strikeout.

Fans of opposing teams celebrated it on social media. They chanted “overrated” at Fenway Park. Nonsense in the baseball world remains in full supply, but that’s the nature of the business.

Take the pulse inside the Orioles clubhouse and the level of concern is undetectable.

“When you get out there, you’re obviously super nervous,” said first baseman Ryan Mountcastle, whose highly anticipated debut came on Aug. 21, 2020. “You want to try to help the team as best you can. But once you settle in and get your feet wet a little bit it’s much easier just to calm the nerves and get back to playing.”

This is the advice teammates are sharing with Holliday, the first-overall pick in the 2022 draft who showed up in Boston as baseball’s No. 1 prospect at age 20. They comfort and encourage. And they don’t doubt him for a minute.

“We’re just a couple games in,” Mountcastle said. “It’s going to be all right. He’s a really good player and I’m sure he’ll figure it out the next couple days. Just hopefully he can keep his head up and keep playing well.”

Mountcastle can relate to the pressure as a high draft pick lugging enormous expectations, but not the early failings. He was 11-for-33 with two doubles and two home runs in his first nine games after an August call-up and hit .333/.379/.462 with three doubles, three homers and 19 RBIs in the next 26.

Gunnar Henderson has sailed in Holliday’s boat. He, too, was baseball’s top prospect and creator of tremendous fanfare and fuss after the Orioles promoted him on Aug. 21, 2022 in Cleveland.

There’s a difference, though. Henderson went 2-for-4 with a home run in his first game and posted a .348 on-base percentage in 34, with seven doubles, a triple, four homers, 18 RBIs and 16 walks.

The adversity didn’t hit him until the start of 2023, with rookie status intact. Henderson slashed .189/.348/.311 in the first month and .213/.315/.425 in May.

Henderson appeared in 20 games in June and batted .320/.354/.640 with four doubles, a triple, six homers and 16 RBIs in 79 plate appearances. He’d go on to win American League Rookie of the Year.

“He’s just getting pitched well,” Henderson said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of cameras on him, so it’s not the easiest thing to get through. He’s out there doing his best, and I just told him to stay aggressive, don’t let the results now make you get passive. That’s kind of what I got in trouble with last year, just trying to find the perfect pitch, and ultimately you’re already late on that pitch anyway.

“I told him to just stay aggressive, go out there and don’t let the results kind of affect what your approach is and what you’re good at.”

Adley Rutschman shares the distinction of being a first-overall selection in 2019 and hyped to the maximum. Where he’d slot in the lineup was breaking news.

Rutschman appeared in 10 games in May 2022 and was 7-for-39 (.180) with no home runs or RBIs. He batted .241 with a .294 on-base percentage in June before taking off and was runner-up for Rookie of the Year.

Colton Cowser is a more recent example. The fifth-overall pick in 2021 made his debut on July 5, 2023 at Yankee Stadium and had a hit and RBI. He finished 7-for-61 with no home runs, was optioned twice and didn’t make the Division Series roster.

Cowser had to earn a spot on the Opening Day roster, and he’s 14-for-31 (.452) with nine extra-base hits, 12 RBIs and a 1.406 OPS. He figured it out. He knows that Holliday will do the exact same.

“I’m not worried about it at all,” he said. “He’s been getting pitched pretty tough. I like his aggressive swings. I think he needs to stay aggressive. He kind of went through it the first two games in Triple-A, you know? And then, look how he was going there.

“I’m not really concerned. I just told him to stay with it, continue to be aggressive in the zone. You know he’s seeing it pretty good when he’s going 0-2 and then he’s getting to 3-2. I consider it a quality at-bat myself if I’m working a count from 0-2 to 3-2, and I feel like he’s done it a couple times.”

Henderson spent many at-bats in that two-strike hole last April. He had to climb out.

Holliday fanned three times Friday and was down two strikes in every at-bat.

“You’ve just got to stay aggressive,” he said. “I told him I was in that same boat. It just felt like you were going up there every single at-bat 0-2. … Just being aggressive on pitches you know you can do damage with. There’s being aggressive and then there’s being aggressive on pitches that you can do damage with.”

Holliday is advanced for his age, and not just in the baseball sense. He’s equipped with tools that enable him to cope. To appear totally unaffected.

“He’s very mature,” Cowser said. “I know darn sure if I was in the big leagues at 20, I wouldn’t be looking near as good as him right now. I’m not too worried about Jackson at all.”

Being out of yesterday’s lineup also removed Holliday from the intense heat that his spotlight shines on him. Reporters didn’t rush to his locker. They had no reason to visit it after an 11-5 loss.

“Obviously, it seems like he’s got every camera in the world on him watching every move he does,” Henderson said. “That’s just something on its own that’s hard to deal with. Just go out there and just play your game. Don’t let the results of these first couple games affect how you play your game.

“We’ve seen what he can do and he’s ultimately going to do it. It’s just a matter of time, and just go out there and stick to what he does really well, and that’s being aggressive and getting on base one way or another. I know he’s going to do it. It’s only a matter of time before he breaks out of it.”

Henderson acknowledges how the pitching is tougher up here, but the message is the same.

“Just go up there,” he said, “and continue to be himself.”

Note: I’m done for the day. I’ll be at a dirt bike track in West Virginia. Don’t ask.

Be back Monday.

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