College baseball: Badin’s Holderbach becomes a national player at EKU

He doesn’t remember exactly when his baseball life began. How could he? Alex Holderbach was literally just a baby when it started.

But there are pictures to fill in the blanks and relatives to tell him about it. His mother remembers clearly.

“His first word was ‘ball,’ ” Julie Holderbach said. “He crawled early. As soon as he could do it, he would chase those little balls around.”

That was a long time ago, and yet it seems like a fitting start. Alex is 21 years old now, a 2015 Badin High School graduate and Fairfield resident. He’s still playing the game. And you could say he’s doing OK.

On Tuesday, the Eastern Kentucky University junior catcher was named the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association National Hitter of the Week, the Perfect Game/Rawlings Player of the Week and the College Sports Madness National Baseball Field Player of the Week.

On Monday, he was named one of eight National Players of the Week by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Week and the College Sports Madness Ohio Valley Baseball Player of the Week. He collected six home runs and 12 RBIs in four games last week.

Holderbach is the NCAA Division I leader in RBIs heading into Saturday’s play. And, yes, his name might get called in major league baseball’s amateur draft June 4-6.

“It’s still hard to process,” Holderbach said. “There’s so many good players across the country. These awards are pretty humbling. But I put in a lot of hard work to get where I am today. It’s just nice to see it pay off.”

Looking for a home

His career as a Badin Ram was a very good one.

Alex Holderbach was a three-year varsity player at Badin and the Greater Catholic League Coed Central Division Player of the Year as a junior.

He was a bit of a position vagabond back then, a sign of things to come. A lot of left field and second base and shortstop and first base, but Holderbach could play anywhere.

“At Badin, I think I played all nine positions at some point in my four years,” he said. “Maybe I didn’t play center field, but I definitely played everywhere else. Badin built a good foundation for me. My coaches always pushed me.”

Armed with a career average of .402 to go along with 84 RBIs and 30 stolen bases, Holderbach seemed like a strong candidate for lots of Division I college scholarship interest.

It didn’t quite turn out that way. His offers: Eastern Kentucky and Bellarmine. Badin coach Brion Treadway is just as befuddled about that now as he was then.

“I probably sent out 150, 200 emails to Division I coaches about Alex Holderbach. He just kept getting passed over,” Treadway said. “He’s an athlete. He can fly. He’s got a cannon for an arm. And obviously he can hit. He was a no-brainer to me.”

Did the 6-foot Holderbach lack some specific attribute that college coaches look for?

“Well, I think Alex was always the best athlete on any team he was on, so kind of automatically they defaulted him to shortstop,” Treadway said. “I’m not sure shortstop is his best position. I think he was a phenomenal outfielder. He’s obviously become a phenomenal catcher.

“I don’t know if schools just maybe couldn’t see past the fact that they were watching a shortstop that wasn’t the shortstop they were looking for. You would think that they aren’t that shortsighted and would be able to project him at a position.”

The Holderbachs did get one reason from a University of Cincinnati coach.

“We were at a tournament one time and the UC guy was watching, and he told Alex how much he loved his athleticism and he had a great weekend,” Julie Holderbach said. “But he goes, ‘I’m looking at your dad and I’m looking at your mom and I don’t think you’re going to get a whole lot bigger, and we really want bigger people.’ ”

Alex committed to EKU during his senior year. Jason Stein was the Colonels’ head coach at the time. But he was dismissed before Holderbach got to campus for his orientation that summer.

Edwin Thompson was hired on July 2, 2015. He knew next to nothing about his new team, and Holderbach wanted to talk to him at orientation.

“I felt like I had to do that before I made any decisions,” Holderbach said. “He said he would stick with the position that the other coaches gave me, and I felt like I was set. He’s real easy to talk to. He loves to talk too, so you’re going to hear what he wants to say.”

Julie Holderbach conceded Eastern Kentucky wasn’t taking a huge risk because Alex was a recruited walk-on, but the family liked Thompson and his goals for the program.

“The conversation was so easy,” Thompson recalled. “He’s like, ‘I catch, I do this, I do that.’ In my head, I’m thinking, ‘Utility player. Great. Has value. Looks athletic.’ And then he made a comment to me. He said, ‘If I’m good enough, will I play?’ I said yes, and that was all I really needed to know because in his mind, he felt he was good enough to play. And all I took it as was, ‘OK, let’s see what he can do.’ ”

A time to struggle

Holderbach came to EKU as a utility player, but he really thought he was going to be a second baseman.

He ended up making eight starts at second base as a freshman. He also started 12 times in right field, five times behind the plate, three times in left field and two times as the designated hitter.

“I came in one day that fall and said, ‘If you need me to catch a bullpen, I can do that.’ They just looked at me kind of weird,” Holderbach said. “But I caught a good bullpen, and they kept putting me back there as another opportunity to play.”

His bat was very good during his freshman fall season. Thompson said Holderbach had the best offensive fall of anybody on the squad, which included three future professionals.

“I’m like, ‘This is unbelievable. This guy’s the deal,’ ” Thompson said. “But we really didn’t know where he would play. We had two junior catchers at the time. We needed a right fielder, so on opening day, he was in right field. Then a guy gets hurt and we put him at second base. Then the catcher got hurt for a couple days and we put him behind the plate.”

Holderbach’s versatility was a good thing. But his bat wasn’t so good.

He hit .188 that season, and while he showed improvement in the latter part of the year, the whole campaign was a mental drain.

“Extremely frustrating,” Holderbach said. “It was like, ‘What am I doing wrong? Am I supposed to be here?’ At the beginning of the year, I was just trying to do way more than I needed to.”

During that season, a conversation with assistant coach Eric Smith (who’s now at Youngstown State) proved to be something of a turning point for Holderbach.

“I don’t even remember who we were playing,” he said. “I was hitting in the cage, and just purely out of frustration I was like, ‘Why can I do this here, but I can’t do this out there?’ After the game, I was the only one in the locker room, and Coach Smith came in.

“He said, ‘Look. You’ve just got to settle down, take a deep breath. You can’t change anything that’s already happened. Just focus on what you can do now and go into every at-bat knowing that you’re hitting 1.000 and that you can do it.’ Mentally, that was just like, ‘Wow. I can do this.’ It’s just nice to hear it from somebody else when you’re kind of in your own head.”

Holderbach went to Rhode Island to play for the Ocean State Waves in the New England Collegiate Baseball League that summer. It wasn’t a great experience statistically, but it did set the stage for his sophomore year at EKU.

“I started off hitting pretty well, then I didn’t see the ball as well as the season progressed and I stopped playing. I’d just get some at-bats here and there,” Holderbach said. “Seeing those caliber arms really helped me when I got back here to EKU.

“I wasn’t playing a whole lot up there, so I knew if I was going to do anything productive, it was going to be to hit the weight room and put on some weight. I was 180 my freshman year. I think when I got back here, I was 205.”

Said Thompson, “He was just a different physical presence.”

The position carousel continued to spin his sophomore year. Holderbach started 13 games at third base, 12 at second base, 10 as the DH, six at catcher, four in the outfield and two at shortstop.

But offensively, he was a different person. More specifically, he went back to being the hitter he always was before he got to Eastern Kentucky.

Holderbach hit .355 with 11 home runs and 49 RBIs as a sophomore.

“I think putting on that extra weight and seeing those arms in the summer really helped my confidence,” he said. “The physical tools were there. It was really just changing my approach mentally.”

Last summer included stints with the Cincinnati Steam in the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League and the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters in the Northwoods League, and he returned to EKU last fall ready to be a third baseman.

Holderbach played mostly third base and a little bit of first base in the fall before the two guys in the Colonels’ catching mix got hurt. Suddenly, he was the No. 1 catcher.

“They had to have me catch during an intersquad scrimmage one day,” Holderbach said. “I did really well and they said, ‘All right, you’re just going to stay back there now.’ I’ve been catching ever since.”

He’s started 37 games behind the plate and 10 as the DH this year (through Friday). It took him a little while to get warmed up at the plate, but once he did, his offensive production took off.

Holderbach is hitting .379 with 10 doubles, two triples, 15 home runs and 66 RBIs.

“My timing’s been really good, my hands have been good, and I’ve just been seeing the ball really well,” Holderbach said. “Everything just looks really slow right now.”

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

It was a midweek trip to Xavier’s Hayden Field for Eastern Kentucky, just your basic nonconference game sandwiched between weekend series in the OVC.

Alex Holderbach had no idea what was in store for him.

“I’m excited going there because I know I’m close to home. I know a lot of people will be there,” he said. “Coach asked me if I wanted to catch or DH that day. My body didn’t need the extra stress, so I told him I’d like to DH. That’s where he put me.”

The day went like this:

» First at-bat: Two-run home run to left field. Count: 1-1. Pitcher: Trevor Olson.

“I got a good pitch to hit right down the middle. I just swung and got a lot of it. That one hit Victory Parkway. I told my buddy Cameron Nunn going there that I really wanted to hit Victory Parkway once today just because it’s right there.”

» Second at-bat: Walked on five pitches and scored. Pitcher: Trevor Olson.

“I think they threw me one strike. Everyone else was off the plate, so I didn’t really have anything to hit.”

» Third at-bat: Two-run home run to left-center field. Count: 3-1. Pitcher: Evan Miller.

“I wasn’t trying to do too much. I was just trying to make sure I got a run in, and I got another fastball that just happened to be down the middle. I hit it and I was like, ‘That might hit the wall.’ But it snuck out.”

» Fourth at-bat: Three-run home run to center field. Count: 2-2. Pitcher: Christian Glass.

“I got an elevated fastball and hit that one really well. That was a line drive that just got out quick.”

» Fifth at-bat: Solo home run to left field. Count: 2-2. Pitcher: Chris Givin.

“I was talking to Coach (Tyler) Hanson and he’s like, ‘You know you’re just dipping and driving this one, right?’ I said, ‘Coach, that’s what I was doing the whole time.’ In the back of my head, I knew four was the school record.

“I was like, ‘If I’ve already tied the record, I might as well try to do a little extra if the situation is right.’ So I went up to that at-bat and I was like, ‘All right, this is probably one of the only at-bats all season where I’m going to say I’m literally trying to hit a home run.’

“First pitch was a slider away. The second pitch was a slider that started in and broke over the plate. I think the next pitch was a fastball away for a strike. Then I got another slider that was down, and the next slider just stayed middle. Usually I have a different approach with two strikes, but in that situation, I felt like if I struck out, it was still a pretty good day. And I got all of it. It didn’t make it out to Victory Parkway. It actually hit the top of the net. But it was a really cool feeling.”

A 4-for-4, eight-RBI performance was one of those days that aren’t seen very often in college baseball, though ironically, Holderbach noted that Louisville’s Brendan McKay had four homers and nine RBIs exactly one year earlier at EKU.

“He was just a really good player, the fourth overall pick in the draft,” Holderbach said. “It was just weird to see that. He just looked unhappy after he did all that. For me, it was just so shocking because it’s normally not who I am. I’m a line-drive kind of guy, so hitting four in one day was just crazy. It felt like a dream almost.

“It was funny because my next at-bat in my next game (at Jacksonville State) was also a home run. It’s just like, ‘What’s going on here?’ Then I hit a ball bad and it was like, ‘All right, back to reality.’ That’s baseball.”

Asked about his previous best day for home runs, Holderbach had to reach deep into his memory bank.

“I might’ve hit three in coach pitch … but I don’t know if that really counts,” he said. “My dad was the pitcher, so he’d like to hear that. He knew exactly where to throw it. He was always scared because he threw a little harder to me because he knew I could hit it.”

Scott Holderbach, a baseball and football player at Badin who graduated in 1989, doesn’t have to think too hard to remember those days at Waterworks Park.

“That’s a true story,” Scott said. “We spent a lot of summers over there.”

The family connection

There are four Holderbach boys: Alex, Drew (17), Mark (14) and Ryan (11). They’re all baseball players, with Drew currently a senior second baseman at Badin.

There’s generally a lot of activity at the Holderbach household on Marsh Drive, just down the street from Waterworks. And Scott is usually right in the middle of it.

“When I grew up, I didn’t have brothers. So these guys are my little brothers,” he said. “Growing up, our summers usually consisted of vacation with dirt and grass and a baseball field somewhere.”

“Our grass is half dead in the front yard because it can be 12 degrees and they’re outside throwing the ball, all of them,” Julie Holderbach said. “They would much prefer to be outside throwing a ball than anything else.”

Alex said he tries to be a mentor to his younger brothers.

“You know how it is being brothers. We always get into some kind of argument at some point,” Alex said. “But I think in the end, they trust me and listen to me and know I can help them out.”

Scott said he feels like he “hit the jackpot” with a wife that loves the game of baseball as much as he does. He said he’s usually the family’s batting practice pitcher and his wife is the swing doctor.

Alex said his mom has thrown BP a few times through the years, though he said she’s anything but a flamethrower.

“She’s doing what she can to get it there, but she gets it there,” Alex said. “She’s always been willing to do what it takes.”

Mom’s reply? “I throw like a girl, but that’s OK,” she said. “Because I am a girl.”

Baseball is a daily routine for the Holderbachs at this time of year. A trip to EKU, sitting at Alumni Field to watch Badin, summer games … it’s all one big diamond.

When they can’t get down to Kentucky to watch Alex play, technology keeps them up to date.

“People will say baseball’s boring. I’m like, ‘Then you don’t understand it,’ ” Julie said. “We love it for one thing, but the friendships that all of our kids have made and that we have made through baseball just make your lives rich. The people turn out to really be the best part.”

Scott and Julie have been heartened to see the increased confidence in Alex.

“He is a way more confident player now than he ever has been,” Julie said. “He’s a very humble player. As he came around the bases after his fourth home run at Xavier, he takes his helmet off almost kind of giggling, high-fives his team, and it’s over.”

This season has been a lot of fun for EKU. As Holderbach has gotten hot, the Colonels have followed right along. They’re 26-21 through Friday’s games and have already clinched a spot in the OVC tournament. They’ve won 10 of their last 11 games.

Will Alex be back in an Eastern Kentucky uniform next year? That remains to be seen.

An eye on the draft

Thompson is like any college coach when it comes to his players. He wants them to stay and play for four years in college, but he also wants them to chase their dreams.

Holderbach has a legitimate shot at being picked in the upcoming draft.

“The draft is so unpredictable,” Thompson said. “It only takes one person to like you. Catching is a hard position to find, especially one that can hit a little bit. The more Alex hits, the more opportunities he’ll have.

“We never hold kids back. We want them to move on if they’re ready to move on. If you get drafted and you feel in your heart that you should go, who am I to say that’s the wrong decision?”

Holderbach said he intentionally tries to keep the draft out of his mind. He doesn’t see an upside to thinking about it during his season.

“It’s all for this team right now,” Holderbach said. “We were picked to finish dead last in the conference this year, and we’re proving a lot of people wrong. If you’re not winning, it’s tough to have all these individual things and feel good about it. I feel like it’s a slap in the face.”

Holderbach believes being a catcher is the right thing for him right now. He continues to work on all the nuances of the position.

Thompson said Holderbach has the potential to be an All-American, an Academic All-American and OVC Player of the Year. He’s a high-level achiever in the classroom majoring in exercise science.

EKU’s captains are Holderbach, shortstop Ryland Kerr, pitchers Aaron Ochsenbein and Max Ford, and first baseman/outfielder Danny McFarland.

“From an offensive standpoint, Alex has always been really consistent as far as his walks to strikeouts,” Thompson said. “He’s a worker. He’s learned how to use the whole field. It’s really just a matter of getting experience. Sometimes kids don’t understand that in order to be really good at this game, you’ve got to play a lot before you can get there.

“It’s hard to get him out right now. We’ve got other guys too, but there’s something about Alex that the guys really are just drawn to. He’s a special kid. All I have to do is not mess him up.”

The road leads forward

When his college season is over, Holderbach will head to the prestigious Cape Cod League.

He has a temporary contract with the Harwich Mariners that could be extended through the summer or end rather quickly. It’s all about performance during summer ball in Massachusetts.

Holderbach is an advocate of weightlifting and said he’s a serious dude in the weight room.

“Starting back in high school, that’s what I think really helped me get the confidence and develop more tools,” he said. “I know when some people are in the weight room, it’s just, ‘Oh, I have to be here.’ I really enjoy being in there. I want to outwork everyone. I want to be the best player I can be on the field, in the weight room, wherever.”

Treadway isn’t surprised by that mentality. He’d be surprised if Holderbach didn’t think like that.

“Alex is one of the hardest-working Badin baseball players to ever come through,” Treadway said. “The kid lived in the cages. If he has free time, he’s hitting. That’s what he does.

“There’s a whole bunch of schools that Alex could’ve landed at. I’m just glad EKU gave him a shot and honored the commitment that they made to him. To see what he’s done against teams that could’ve had him is pretty cool.”

Playing college baseball, or any college sport, is viewed as a job by many. The hours involved back that up.

Alex Holderbach will never look at it that way because that’s not what he believes.

“It’s still fun for me,” he said. “As long as I’m having fun with it, it’s still just a game. I don’t ever feel like I’m obligated to do anything. It’s all desire and drive to want to be here.”

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