After 10 years in minors, Braves' Grant Holmes excels in MLB debut: 'Never give up'

ATLANTA — To paraphrase the country song, he’s pitched for Ogden, Stockton, Midland, Rome … 

“How many teams I’ve pitched for?” reliever Grant Holmes said, repeating a question as he stood in front of his still nameplate-less locker in the Atlanta Braves clubhouse 24 hours after his major-league debut and 10 years after the South Carolina native was a first-round pick by the Los Angeles Dodgers. “Hmm. I’d probably say, 13?”

He’s pitched for Rancho Cucamonga, Las Vegas, Great Lakes, Gwinnett …

“I never really had any bad towns,” said Holmes, 28. “Thankfully. I mean, I went to some bad ones. Like Clinton, Iowa. That was a bad one.”

He was a Midwest League All-Star with the Great Lakes Loons in 2015. A top-100 prospect in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Texas League Pitcher of the Week with the Midland Rockhounds in July 2017. Released by the Oakland Athletics in 2022.

Wait, released by the Oakland Athletics?

“Yeah, I was like, man, I need to reset here,” Holmes said of being dumped by the perpetually rebuilding franchise. “And when the Braves called, it was like, man, they just won the World Series, and they’re calling me? I just got released.”

Two years after being dumped by the A’s, and one day before the 10th anniversary of signing his first pro contract, Holmes’ story became a Hollywood script when he made his MLB debut for the team he grew up cheering for. He did so with a flourish — three scoreless innings of two-hit relief Sunday against the Tampa Bay Rays.

“It’s great,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for him and what he’s done, what he’s gone through. Anybody that fights that hard and grinds that hard and just keeps showing up and doing it.”

Holmes, called up from Triple-A Gwinnett on Saturday night, faced the minimum nine batters Sunday, inducing double plays in both innings in which the Rays had a single against him. He became the first player from the Horry County (South Carolina) school system to reach the major leagues, and his parents, John and Cheryln, and wife Sami drove down from South Carolina in time to see him pitch.

“It was real special, especially having it on Father’s Day,” Holmes said of his debut. “I feel like that’s an unforgettable Father’s Day gift. Especially for my father. Especially with it being 10 years in the making.”

Asked what his father meant to him, Holmes said, “Everything. He raised me to be the man I am today. I can’t thank him enough for that. Him being the man that he is has really helped me become who I am. Strong, persevering. Just anything you can ask for a dad, that’s who he is.”

His older brother, Colby, pitched for South Carolina’s 2011 College World Series championship team and pitched for three seasons in the Braves’ lower minor leagues and one year of independent ball. Colby Holmes is a building inspector now in South Carolina and follows his brother’s career closely.

“He wasn’t able to make this (debut) because he had a prior engagement, vacation down in Florida with his family,” Holmes said. “I think he’s going to try to make it make it through here when he comes back from Florida.”

By then, Holmes might have settled into a routine with the Braves. Monday, he was still floating a bit on cloud nine.

“I don’t think it’s fully set in yet,” Holmes said

With his handlebar mustache and curly hair hanging past his shoulders, he looked a cross between the Kenny Powers TV character and a Metallica roadie. He has a disarming air, speaking with the wonder and appreciation of a kid who just got to The Show, not a journeyman who’s ridden buses and commercial flights to minor league outposts across the country for a decade in pursuit of his dream.

“Happened in a flash. I got called that night and I was pitching within 12 hours the next day,” he said of his long-awaited promotion. “So it’s been a special ride.”

Ten years in the minors. Ten.

“I was telling my agent earlier today, 10 years isn’t that long, once you finally hit that goal,” he said, smiling. “It feels like a few years ago I was drafted. But the 10 years were well worth it because yesterday was a special day. Playing for my childhood team, growing up watching Chipper (Jones) and (John) Smoltz. I was telling my dad and mom today, I was like, I remember watching Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward playing (for the) Myrtle Beach Pelicans when I was a kid, so it’s pretty cool.”

If he was in awe or nervous, he sure didn’t show it Sunday. He looked calm as could be while throwing 24 strikes in 34 pitches. How did he maintain his composure pitching in front of a sellout crowd of 40,211 after all those years in the minors?

“I’m not going to lie, I have no idea,” said the refreshingly candid Holmes. “My breathing, maybe? I really don’t know. It was a weird feeling going out there and just not having any jitters or any nervous thoughts or anything. I think that’s what makes it so special, going out there and just being me and doing what I usually do.”

At Gwinnett, he had a 2.63 ERA in 18 games including three starts before the call to Atlanta. The right-hander had 51 strikeouts with only 14 walks in 41 innings.

Released by Oakland? Yep, two years ago.

To be fair, the A’s weren’t releasing a pitcher who was still considered a prospect. Not after Holmes had a 4.98 ERA in Double-A Midland in 2017 – that Pitcher of the Week award notwithstanding – and was slowed by injuries including a shoulder issue in 2018 and 2019. He was among the minor leaguers hurt most by the 2020 season being wiped out by COVID-19 since he was 24 and not the type of prospect teams were inviting to their alternate training sites that year.

So after moving him from starting to mostly relieving in 2021 at their Triple-A Las Vegas affiliate, Holmes posted an 8.01 ERA that season and an 8.27 ERA through 27 games (three starts) in 2022 before the A’s released him late that summer.

Even then, Holmes said he didn’t think about quitting. Not as long as some team somewhere wanted him to wear its jersey.

“Never,” he said. “Somebody’s going to have to take it off my back for me to get out of the game.”

“Good for him,” Snitker said when told what Holmes said about not quitting. “That’s a testament to the determination and all that he has. So, it’s awesome that he could go out there and do what he did yesterday.”

Soon after he was let go by the A’s in 2022, the Braves called. They had long been interested. More specifically, Paul Davis, the Braves’ director of pitching development, was interested.

“He’d been watching me since I got drafted,” said Holmes, the 22nd pick of the first round in 2014 by the Dodgers, who gave him a signing bonus of nearly $2.5 million, almost a half-million bucks over slot value because the kid with the high-90s fastball had been projected to go earlier in the draft and they wanted to make sure he didn’t opt for college.

“I think (Davis) was with the Cardinals at the time, and they wanted to get me.”

The Dodgers took Alex Verdugo with their second-round pick that year and signed him for about $1 million less than Holmes got. Their front office has changed over since and most Dodgers fans have long forgotten about their first-round pick from a decade ago.

But Holmes is still plugging away, still dreaming, still firing fastballs — his velocity back up to 95 mph after being down a tick or two before he came to the Braves organization — along with sliders, curveballs, and a cutter that he added last season at Gwinnett, to help him be more effective against lefties.

“I would say coming to the Braves probably was — is — the best decision,” Holmes said. “I’ve been able to get better at being a pitcher, working on things. It’s honestly been a blessing to have these guys help me develop into who I am now.”

Asked if he had a message for minor leaguers or other aspiring athletes, Holmes thought for a moment.

“Never give up,” he said. “I mean, there’s always hope as long as you fight for it. Never give up. That’s what I go by. Never give up.”

(Photo of Grant Holmes from spring training: Julio Aguilar / Getty Images)

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