Greg Holt finds starring role for UNC baseball

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Greg Holt has pitched in 30 games out of the Tar Heel bullpen in 2011 and owns a 7-1 record and a 3.09 ERA.

When Greg Holt saw his name flash across the screen as the 247th pick in the 2011 MLB draft, the North Carolina senior jumped out of his seat.

It wasn’t so long ago that Holt rarely got off the bench, playing in less than half of the Tar Heels’ games during his freshman season. Primarily a pitcher during his junior year, Holt often struggled on the mound and owned a 3-4 record in UNC’s 2010 campaign.

But as he was selected by the Washington Nationals on Tuesday, Holt’s whirlwind journey finally brought him to a place where he’d always dreamed he’d be.

And just two years ago, few people — even those closest to Holt — thought they’d see the day.

“I was telling my mom, ‘Did you ever think I was going to get drafted after the way freshman and sophomore years went?’” Holt said. “She goes, ‘No.’”

Facing failure

Succeeding on the baseball diamond at West Forsyth High School didn’t require much effort for Holt. It had always just come naturally for the Clemmons native.

But when the two-way player stepped onto UNC’s campus in 2007, Holt was not prepared for the reality check that came along with membership on a nationally-known Tar Heel team.

“It was hard being the four year all-state player, being all-conference, all of that, and then coming in here and having people who are better than you,” Holt said. “You have to look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I’m not as good as I thought I was.’”

Holt played in just 18 games during his freshman year and harbored frustrations about having to watch UNC’s 2008 College World Series run from the bench.

The following season, prior to UNC’s weekend series with Virginia, coach Mike Fox approached Holt with the opportunity to start as designated hitter against the Cavaliers.

But even with the ideal chance to prove himself, Holt couldn’t escape a slump.

The sophomore had no hits in nine at-bats that weekend and struck out twice in the final game of the series.

That’s when Holt first thought he had hit the point of no return.

“After that, I was like, ‘Man, can I really hit here?’” Holt said. “You know, (Fox) gives me the opportunity to hit against all these pitchers, and I couldn’t do it. Where do I go from here?”

Searching for a niche

Holt’s dad, Brian Holt, a former pitcher at Springfield College, watched his son play from the stands of Boshamer Stadium on a regular basis.

And when the one thing that had usually come so easily to Greg quickly became the cause of his struggle, he knew exactly who to turn to for help.

Holt credits his father’s words of encouragement as the motivation he needed to work harder at his game.

“Baseball is such a mental game, and he was at a bad place mentally,” Brian Holt said. “He still had the physical tools. He had the power and the strength. But mentally, every time he went to the plate he put too much pressure on himself.”

Having spent time on the mound in addition to playing third base in high school, Holt tried his hand at pitching for the Tar Heels during his sophomore year.

At first, Holt saw similar pitfalls on the mound. In game three of a series against Georgia Tech during his junior year, the pitcher allowed five runs on two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and the Yellow Jackets went on to win the game in the tenth inning.

But Holt had his sights set on being a consistent contributor for the Tar Heels. And that was something he was determined not to throw away.

Towards the end of the 2010 campaign, Holt’s performances began to turn around. Against Clemson, Holt had key strikeouts in the series finale, and he gained NCAA tournament experience by pitching in UNC’s regional games.

For pitcher Bryant Gaines, seeing his teammate turn the corner had been a long time coming.

“We encourage each other by humbling one another,” Gaines said. “Greg, just like anybody else, when he struggled, he heard it from all of his teammates… I think he kind of just got sick of getting so much grief all the time that he had to play better.”

Success at last

It was almost as if a switch had been flipped inside of Greg Holt.

The pitcher has a 7-1 record so far this season, and now that Holt has found his niche, the weight — and the bat ­— has been lifted from his shoulders.

In UNC’s ACC tournament opener against Miami, the senior started from the mound and pitched 5 2/3 innings.

The very next day against Wake Forest, Holt ­— who owns a team-best .385 batting average — blasted a two-run homer in Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

“It’s nice, people saying, ‘Oh you’re so versatile. You’ve got a two-way super star,’” Holt said. “I’m like, ‘No, I’m just a pitcher who hits.’”

The Tar Heels are just two wins away from a trip to the College World Series, and Holt is looking forward to helping his team get to Omaha in whatever role he might fill.

But when Greg Holt’s collegiate career ends later this month, his legacy at North Carolina will be about more than just records and championship runs.

“If (younger guys) are struggling or something like that, they can look at Greg’s story and be like, ‘Well, look at where he came from, and look at what he’s doing today,’” Gaines said.

Contact the Sports Editor at sports@dailytarheel.com.

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