100 in 100: McDowell County’s Greg Holland, MLB’s ‘Dirty South’

The hard-throwing righthander was drafted out of Western Carolina and became one of baseball's top closers

Marion‘s Greg Holland became one of baseball‘s top closers, helping the Royals advance to World Series in 2014 after a college career at Western Carolina. (Charlie Riedel / AP Photo)

North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.

McDowell County

Greg Holland

We often don’t recognize opportunity until it hits us in the face. In Greg Holland’s case, it actually did hit him in the face.

It happened during his senior season at McDowell High School when he was struck by an errant pickoff throw while running at first base. The aspiring infielder suffered a broken jaw that had to be wired shut. Unable to eat solid food for weeks, his already slender 5-foot-10 frame shrunk to just 150 pounds, scaring off both the professional scouts and college recruiters.


With no offers from either, he ended up walking on as a pitcher at Western Carolina.

“After I graduated, I played summer ball and gained weight back and got stronger,” he told MLB.com. “I walked on at Western Carolina. The guys never heard of me but … they gave me a shot to practice with them.”

He eventually earned a role in the Catamounts’ bullpen as his fastball continued to gain velocity. Although his record in three college seasons was a pedestrian 10-12 with a 4.34 ERA from 2005-07, his ability to throw hard caught the eye of the Kansas City Royals, who selected him in the 10th round of the MLB Draft.

After recovering from Tommy John surgery, Greg Holland was named Comeback Player of the Year for his play with the Colorado Rockies in 2017. (Jim Mone / AP Photo)

Holland made his major league debut as a midseason call-up three years later. By 2013, he was the Royals regular closer, setting a single-season franchise record by converting 47 of 50 save opportunities. He went on to earn two All-Star selections while tying a postseason record with seven saves in helping pitch his team to the World Series in 2014.

Kansas City lost to the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 that year. Even though it came back to win the following year by beating the New York Mets, Holland couldn’t fully appreciate the accomplishment thanks to an injury that ended his season in late September.

After spending the 2016 season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, he signed as a free agent with the Colorado Rockies — posting a National League-leading 41 saves and earning Comeback Player of the Year honors.

Nicknamed “Dirty South” because of his small-town North Carolina roots and a fastball that often reached 100 mph, Holland was back with the Royals trying to earn a roster spot when spring training was shut down because of the coronavirus crisis.