Appalachian State’s Noah Holmes

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 17, 2014

GRANITE QUARRY — “Cutting it loose” is a phrase Noah Holmes uses often.
Cutting it loose is something the third baseman hasn’t been able to do on his throws since his freshman season at Appalachian State in the spring of 2011, but he’s approaching cut-it-loose status again.
Several days a week, Holmes long-tosses baseballs, playing quiet games of catch with former East Rowan teammate and current Lenoir-Rhyne Bear Chase Hathcock, who is standing 120 feet away.
Holmes feels some shoulder soreness at the end of their sessions, but it’s a good soreness. Holmes can tell you there’s a world of difference between soreness and pain.
“My freshman year in Boone, I started feeling pain in my shoulder and it just got progressively worse every year,” Holmes said.
Holmes started for the Mountaineers at third base as a sophomore. That 2012 season was a magic-carpet ride for ASU that didn’t end until the NCAA regional round. Holmes was a big part of it. His big brother, Trey, played first base. Preston Troutman, another East teammate, was in the outfield. Three starters from one middle-sized high school on a very good Division I team — those were amazing days.
Holmes’ junior season in 2013 also couldn’t have started any better. Opening day the Mountaineers were in Raleigh to play eighth-ranked N.C. State. All-American Carlos Rodon, who would become the third pick in the 2014 MLB draft, was on the hill for the Wolfpack. Holmes homered off Rodon in his first at-bat in the second inning, and Troutman homered in the fourth in a stunning 6-3 victory.
“When I made contact against Rodon, I ran to first base thinking, ‘Wow, I hit that one pretty square,’ but I was as surprised as anyone when it went over the fence,” Holmes said.
While that will be a moment Holmes can tell the grand-kids about someday, he still says his biggest thrill was a series he had at Gonzaga late that season. He homered twice and drove in six runs in two ASU victories against the West Coast Conference champions.
The bad news during Holmes’ 2013 season was that his shoulder had deteriorated to the point where he could no longer play third base. After 13 games, he had to move to the DH spot. An MRI showed tears in two of the four muscles in his right rotator cuff.
“It not only hurt, my throwing was pretty erratic,” said Holmes, who understood the move.
Holmes still had his best season offensively. He batted .296 with five homers and 27 RBIs and he batted a team-best .418 with two outs. Still, being the DH, wasn’t nearly as much fun as playing third base,
He’d always been a third baseman.
He’d batted .480 for East’s 2010 state champs, and he’d also put up one of the finest American Legion careers in Rowan County history as a third baseman. On the all-time RC Legion list, Holmes is in the top 10 in career batting average (.407), hits (187), doubles (40), homers (20) and RBIs (147).
Following his junior season at ASU, Holmes played in a wood bat league in Alaska, but he was limited by his shoulder issues to first base and DH.
Holmes had another MRI in August, 2013, that showed no improvement in his rotator cuff. Surgery was an option, but there were no guarantees it would help.
“At that point, I was thinking I would just play my last season as a DH, get my diploma and move on,” Holmes said.
Two things happened to change his mind.
First, Appalachian brought in a surgeon named Evan Ekman, who had worked with a number of pro athletes. He examined Holmes’ MRIs, and he believed he saw something that hadn’t been detected earlier — tears in the labrum that were fixable through surgery.
The other thing was Appalachian’s Scout Day. It was a small miracle, but Holmes threw and hit in a workout and scrimmage that day without pain for the first time in months. Holmes doesn’t want to build up anyone’s expectations, including his own, but he admits pro scouts showed some interest.
“That day was kind of like being a kid again and trying out for a team.” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”
When ASU workouts ended last fall, Holmes faced a decision. He opted to have shoulder surgery.
Surgery was performed on Holmes’ right shoulder on Nov. 1, Officially, the operation was for labrum repair and rotator cuff cleanup.
“Once they got inside the shoulder, the tears were much worse than they’d appeared in MRIs,” said Jimmy Holmes, Noah’s father, “The surgeon was amazed he’d been playing through it.”
Holmes has improved steadily. Local physical therapist Joel Burgess got the rehab process started when Holmes was home for Christmas break, and he stayed ahead of schedule at Boone during the spring semester.
There was initially some thought that Holmes might even rejoin the Mountaineers at midseason to DH, but he elected to take a redshirt year.
“That meant I wouldn’t be going out with the guys I’d come to Appalachian with, and that was the toughest part of that decision,” Holmes said. “I’d been playing with Preston since we were a little kids.”
The enticement of returning for a final pain-free college season won out. It wasn’t an easy thing for Holmes to watch his teammates struggle to a middle-of-the pack finish in the Southern Conference, but there were also positives.
“Preston did great and I was happy for him,” Holmes said. “It was fun to sit back and watch him play.”
Among other things, Troutman broke the ASU record for career triples.
Holmes has continued his rehab this summer at Extreme Performance with Burgess. He expects to be 100 percent for fall workouts. If all goes well, Holmes, who will turn 23 in November, should be an exceptional, experienced player for the Mountaineers next spring.
One of the young Mountaineers he’s looking forward to playing with for the first time is Salisbury graduate Brian Bauk, who was a freshman this season.
“Bauk competes hard and he’s got some great tools,” Holmes said. “The way he can run he beats out groundballs that you don’t expect anyone to beat out.”
Academically, Holmes is in good shape. He’s performing an internship this summer at East Rowan YMCA, and the additional year of school will allow him to complete a double major in Communications and Recreation Managament without much stress.
Whether or not the 2015 college season will be Holmes’ last fling with baseball remains to be seen, but if he’s throwing 100 percent, the lefty swinger could get the opportunity to play past college.
When you talk to him, Holmes sounds like a guy who can finally feel some sunshine after a long winter. He sounds like a guy who’s ready to cut it loose.
“I’m just excited about playing my last college season healthy,” he said. “If I can do that, I can leave baseball with a smile on my face.”