Pirates notebook: John Holdzkom's story one for the ages

ST. LOUIS -- John Holdzkom's story has all the makings of a feel-good sports movie, assuming, of course, it ends with him pitching well for the Pirates this month.

Holdzkom, a 6-foot-9, right-handed reliever, was called up Tuesday from Indianapolis and struck out the side in the eighth inning in his first appearance in the Pirates' 6-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.

The fact that he is pitching for a major league team in contention for a playoff spot is amazing, considering he began the season pitching for independent teams in Amarillo and San Angelo before the Pirates signed him in June.

Holdzkom was sent to Class AA Altoona and, after four games moved up to Class AAA Indianapolis.

Sunday, he got the call that the Pirates had selected his contract and would move him to the majors along with the rest of the September call-ups.

"Honestly, I was just kind of numb [when he learned he was being called up], I wasn't too emotional," Holdzkom said. "It has slowly been seeping into my blood stream as I soak this in, to be honest.

"I mean, I started out in San Angelo, which is in dead-central Texas and there [isn't] much going on there, and it is pretty crazy when you think about it, but I'm happy where this journey has taken me to say the least.

"Regardless of where you are, every time you pitch, you have to prove yourself and go out there and show that you can hack it."

Holdzkom's pitches have been clocked in the high 90s and have hit 100 mph on the radar gun, but he said he averages more like 96 with his fastball and he throws it as a strikeout pitch as well.

"I have dialed it up there from time to time when I am feeling good," he said.

"I'm usually just about 95 percent fastball, four-seamers, that have a late cut on it and I rely on that. People have had trouble barreling that up, so I am going to see how it works up here."

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said Holdzkom has been a pleasant surprise since he joined the organization and throws well enough to merit a real opportunity.

"[Holdzkom] is an interesting story, it is a really cool story actually," Hurdle said. "He pitched in the independent league, he pitched for Team New Zealand in the past, he's really tall with a big downhill angle and a hard cutter that plays in the upper 90s.

"And he has a palm ball, an old-time palm ball that plays like a splitter and he also throws the splitter. He is a two-, three-pitch guy that has shown good angle, velocity and power. [Holdzkom] is the only guy I know that [throws a palm ball] right now."

Five more called up

Holdzkom was one of six players called up Tuesday as the Pirates also brought pitchers Jeff Locke (who started Tuesday against the St. Louis Cardinals), Casey Sadler and Bobby LaFromboise along with outfielder Gregory Polanco from Class AAA Indianapolis.

The Pirates also announced they had selected the contract of infielder/outfielder Chase d'Arnaud from Indianapolis. To make room for d'Arnaud on the 40-man roster, the club designated for assignment infielder/outfielder Michael Martinez.

LaFromboise, like Holdzkom, took the long road to the Pirates. After beginning the year in the Seattle organization, he was claimed by San Diego in April, waived in August, and claimed by the Pirates, who sent him to Indianapolis.

"He is a third left-hander we have been looking for for a while," Hurdle said. "He has pitched well [in Indianapolis], he gives us another, earlier option for a left-hander if need be."

Polanco, Lambo split time

Polanco returned Tuesday, but Hurdle chose to start Andrew Lambo Tuesday night in right. He said he did so because Lambo, who had started the three previous games, has been hitting the ball well.

He said Polanco worked some things out with his swing in his week back in Indianapolis and that he hopes the rookie outfielder can get hot down the stretch.

"I think we need to watch it play out," Hurdle said. "We are going to pick some spots for him, I'd like to get him [to] play, and we've seen him good, and when he is on, we're better.

"I like the at-bats Lambo is giving us right now, so we will probably work at early match-ups and see if one of them can catch some real traction and go."

Morton throws

Right-hander Charlie Morton (sports hernia) threw a simulated game Tuesday.

He said he threw well, but the same pain that surfaced earlier is still there, and he remains uncertain about a timetable for his return to the major leagues.

Hurdle said Morton, on the disabled list since Aug. 17, threw 76 pitches over four innings and the plan now is to continue his rehabilitation.

"We're trying to see where his physicality will go," Hurdle said. "He pitched [Tuesday] and, physically, he feels the same.

"He had pretty good command of his pitches. We are trying to keep his arm live. We're not so much running [him] right back into the rotation right now, he is going to throw a bullpen Thursday or Friday depending on how he feels and [today] will be a better day to ask him some better questions.

"If he comes out feeling good, we will schedule either a side on Thursday or a light bullpen on Friday and then we will anticipate him throwing another [simulated] game on Tuesday in Philadelphia."

Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.

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