It’s a mild early-June evening in Waterloo, Iowa and Owatonna High School graduate, Alec Holcomb, takes a deep breath and digs in from the stretch with two outs and his team clinging to a one-run lead against the Duluth Huskies in an early-season baseball game at Riverfront Stadium.
It’s Holcomb’s third appearance in the elite Northwoods League and he’s in danger of letting the Bucks’ lead slip away — and in a worse-case scenario — losing his spot on the team. Holcomb is playing on a temporary contract and nothing in guaranteed. It’s the ultimate “prove it” situation for the North Dakota State University relief pitcher.
None of that, however, is racing through Holcomb’s mind.
Thrust onto a roster drenched with high-level Division I talent from every corner of the country, he’s been taking the whirlwind situation day-by-day and moment-by-moment. In this particular instance, he simply needs to retire the Duluth batter standing 60 feet, 6 inches in front of him in the batters’ box. Nothing else matters. Throw strikes and survive another day.
And that’s exactly what he does.
After getting ahead 1-2, the batter works the count full as the both runners dance of their respective bases in scoring position. Keeping his mind clear, Holcomb rears back and uncorks a fastball that eludes the batter’s heavy swing and snaps into the catchers’ glove for strike three.
Ballgame over. Waterloo wins 4-3.
Long after the roar of the crowd has subsided and the 1,500-plus fans have made their way home, Holcomb emerges from the clubhouse and decides to do a quick Google search on the player he fanned to end the game. He checks the roster, punches “Matt Hogan” into his phone and the results leave him staggered, and a little giddy.
“I found out he had just finished his freshman season at Vanderbilt — the College World Series champions,” Holcomb said over the phone on Thursday afternoon. “Looking back, it was one of the best pitching sequences of my life, but it made me think: Had I known who he was beforehand, would I have pitched the same? That goes back to me basically coming here (to Waterloo) and just focusing on my development as a player, and I thought that was a cool moment.”
It probably wasn’t a coincidence that Holcomb was offered a full-season contract shortly following his performance against Duluth. After a blistering start to the season in which he did not allow an earned-run in his first 14 2/3 innings, Holcomb has sustained his high level of success, serving as one of Waterloo’s top options out of the bullpen during the condensed schedule. As of Thursday, he’s appeared in 13 games, logged exactly 23 innings and stands second on the team in ERA at 1.95.
Not bad for a kid who thought he’d be playing in townball this summer.
“I thought I would come in and help the team through June and come back home and relax for the summer and maybe play some townball,” Holcomb said. “About two years ago I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to play for the Northwoods League if I was given the opportunity, but I never thought it would be like this. If you would have told me two years ago, I never would have seen this level of success coming.”
Indeed, Holcomb has climbed the proverbial baseball ladder since his senior season at OHS in 2016. Signing with Des Moines Area Community College out of high school and spending a pair of seasons in Iowa, Holcomb committed to NDSU last year and spent this past spring pitching out of the bullpen for the Bison. Holcomb admits his results were “up and down” during his first season in Fargo, but he never stopped believing in himself and kept his arm in exceptional shape.
When the Bucks called and offered him a 10-game contract, Holcomb didn’t hesitate and was set up with a host family in the Waterloo area and acquired to help solidify the bullpen before many of the regular players joined the team after their college seasons ended. The entire situation happened so fast that Holcomb didn’t really have a chance to properly soak it all in. He had gone from planning his laid-back summer in Owatonna to joining a roster filled with 25 other Division I athletes and playing in cavernous stadiums with modern amenities in front of thousands of fans on a nightly basis.
“I can remember one night after a game kids were allowed onto the field and I must have signed 40 squishy balls,” Holcomb said with a chuckle. “It was definitely one of those moments I’ll never forget. It’s been amazing.”
The entire NWL environment is designed to give the players a taste of what it would be like to play professional baseball since many of them will do just that. The Bucks alone have produced 16 Major Leaguers since 1997 while well-known current and former MLB players such as Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Cole Calhoun, Brandon Crawford, Andre Ethier, Jordan Zimmerman, Paul DeJong, Matt Chapman, Curtis Granderson, Ben Zobrist and current Home Run Derby champion, Pete Alonso, have all passed through the Northwoods League.
“Honestly, it doesn’t even set in seeing those guys on the wall,” Holcomb said. “It’s pretty crazy to think that we were in the same situation as those guys and now they are making millions. I try not to think about it too much because I could easily get caught up in all that. I’m just taking it day by day, but it’s awesome to see their success.”
Since signing the full-season contract and playing for the team since late May, Holcomb has settled into a routine that pretty much includes baseball, food, buses, sleep and exercise. During home games, he wakes up early and goes to the gym. If he pitched the night prior, he focuses on arm-recovery that includes stretching, light weight-training and calisthenics. If he’s in position to see action, he does everything in his power to stay sharp. After a quick meal, Holcomb likes to take it easy for a couple hours before getting to the ballpark three hours before the game. Most nights first pitch takes place between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. with Sundays starting in the afternoon.
On the road, the Bucks stay in a hotel and are provided a pre and post-game meal courtesy of the home club. Most bus rides are tolerable as the schedule is formatted for teams to progressively dot the map with geography taken into consideration. For instance, Waterloo will roll through Mankato and Rochester in the one week and Eau Claire and La Crosse the next.
“I have friends that had played in the league and I heard it was a grind,” Holcomb said. “But it’s been way better than expected. I love the lifestyle. Playing in this league has made me realize that I really enjoy this and want to play baseball as long as possible.”
Holcomb has one season of eligibility remaining at NDSU and is expected to graduate with a double-major in Sports Management and Business Administration. Baseball will undoubtedly be a part of his post-college plans, but at what capacity is still unknown.
In order to have a realistic shot of being drafted in 2020, Holcomb will need to add at least three miles-per-hour to his already scorching fastball that’s been clocked at 92 MPH. Playing against competition from some of the best college baseball programs in the country, he’s has been forced to alter his mindset and trust his secondary pitches in order to produce outs.
“I knew the competition was going to probably be a step up from NDSU,” Holcomb said. “So I knew I needed to throw my secondary pitches more consistency like using my slider and changeup in ‘hitters’ counts.’ I needed to have the confidence in 2-1 count to throw a changeup when they are sitting dead-red on a fastball, and that’s helped me a lot and it shown me that I need to do that more.”
Off the field, Holcomb has also thrived in the high-level environment. He’s grown close to his roommates from Rutgers University and forged a bond with not only the pitching staff, but the entire team. The Bucks won the first half championship with a 20-16 record and Holcomb credits the team’s balance of talent and camaraderie for their immediate success.
“I definitely think I’ve gained some lifelong friends,” Holcomb said. “It’s crazy how fast the friendships have occurred. We’re all in the same position and have the same end goal. And we want to get better and gained close friends and we still have a third of the season remaining.”
Waterloo still has 23 games remaining before the postseason begins in mid-August. The Bucks will square off against the undetermined Great Plains East second half champion in a three-game series opening round before the one-game Divisional championship against the Great Plains West winner.
The Northwoods League championship between the Great Plains and Great Lakes winners is a single-game format scheduled for late August.