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Pitching Straight A’s

Pitching Straight A’s

Howard Bryant

Oakland’s Tim Hudson Passes the Test As Major League Starter

In his first full major league season, Athletics right-hander won 20 games and led club to first division title since 1992

WHEN TIM HUDSON HIT ROCK BOTTOM, HE crashed hard. He knows the night, the city, the rain-marred mound of his comedown. He remembers standing in the spacious but unfriendly confines of the visitors’ clubhouse in Cleveland and staring into space while answering question after miserable question.

The date was April 20. The Indians had demolished Hudson and the A’s, 9-5. Hudson wasn’t beaten by the Indies. He was bludgeoned. He lasted two and one-third innings, allowing five hits and four earned runs. He was drilled in the chest by Roberto Alomar’s line drive, which knocked him out of the game. It was just as well.

Worse were Hudson’s responses. He was shellshocked. The kid pitcher who impressed his teammates for his bulldog attitude as much as his pitching ability had no idea what was happening.

“Maybe it was just Cleveland. I don’t know. But I think I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my pitches, my fastball especially,” Hudson said recently. “But after those games, I didn’t have a lot of confidence in anything I was doing.”

There was, back then, a scent of blood in the air. The Indians smelled it. They had crushed Hudson for the second time in 10 days. The Boston Red Sox were circling, too. Five days earlier, they had clubbed Hudson for seven earned runs and six hits in one and two-thirds of an inning in the A’s 14-2 loss.

Boston shortstop Nomar Garciaparra must have enjoyed an inner smile. A year earlier. Hudson struck out Garciaparra in the August heat of a pennant race and stared him back into the dugout. The next day, Garciaparra asked first baseman Jason Giambi–the two are friends and have the same agent–about the rookie Hudson’s cockiness. “What’s up with your boy?” Garciaparra asked Giambi.

Hudson, 24, was quiet now. More daunting than his 1-2 record and 8.44 ERA was the general feeling that he had been exposed to the rest of the American League. He was 11-2 as a rookie in 1999, but cynics argued that Hudson neither had the size–he is about 5-foot-11 and a shade under 175 pounds–nor the stuff to last.

Many weeks after his knockout in Cleveland, Hudson was a member of the A.L. All-Star team. In three months, Hudson had engineered a remarkable turnaround from sophomore jinx to All-Star by winning nine consecutive decisions.

By season’s end he was one of only three 20-game winners in the majors with a 20-6 mark and 4.14 ERA and most impressive was the fact that during his final six starts he went 6-0 with a 1.39 ERA in leading the A’s to their first division title since 1992. The public opinion polls on Hudson have done a 180-degree turn.

“He was struggling. Nothing more, nothing less,” manager Art Howe said. “There isn’t a person who plays this game and doesn’t struggle. Timmy is no different than all the other players who have played this game. There were so many people out there who suggested the idea of a sophomore slump. I did’t hear them talking when he started winning consistently.”

Now, Hudson is a shiny gem. Anaheim Angels slugger Mo Vaughn calls him one of the most underrated pitchers in the A.L., if not the most underrated.

Howe’s viewpoint is correct, but doesn’t tell the whole story. During Hudson’s struggles, Howe was as concerned as anyone. The A’s unexpected playoff push in 1999 was in large part due to the Hudson influence. Giambi, who along with closer Jason Isringhausen were major factors in Oakland’s impressive 91-70 season in 2000, felt that having Hudson was the key.

“You have to have that guy on the mound that gives you confidence,” Giambi said. “All of our pitchers pitched pretty well, but Huddy was blowing guys away. He was dominant. That makes you feel like if you go out and get a few runs, you can win.”

That wasn’t happening early in the 2000 season, and Howe was concerned that Cleveland’s formula–laying off of Hudson’s deceptive, darting split-finger fastball and change-up–was soon to be the kid’s undoing. Howe was even generally unsympathetic to Hudson during the rout in Boston, challenging Hudson to make whatever changes he needed to make.

Usually, Howe defends his players from criticism. With Hudson, Howe–a 30-year baseball man–wanted his young pitcher to prove he was not merely a rookie wonder.

“What you had was a kid who had had success at every level, and then continued it at the major league level,” said A’s pitching coach Rick Peterson, who coaxed and cajoled Hudson during his difficulties. “Then, when he struggled, he had to figure out how to deal with it because he had never been in this situation before. Now, while he was making a lot of adjustments, he was wondering at the same time if he was going to be OK.”

Hudson had never struggled before. In 1999, he was 3-0 with an 0.50 ERA at Double-A Midland, 4-0 with a 2.20 ERA with Triple-A Vancouver and 11-2 with the A’s.

Hudson knew he would eventually have trouble. But an 8.44 ERA through his four starts of the 2000 season?

Hudson beat Toronto on April 25, allowing one run in seven innings to even up at 2-2, then defeated the Minnesota Twins on April 30 to go to 3-2. Texas hit Hudson hard in his next start for a no-decision, but he was undeterred. He had found the difference.

“I realized the problem was fastball command,” Hudson said. “I was getting myself in trouble for not relying on the fastball. I wasn’t getting the fastball over, so I got behind on almost every batter and had to throw a fastball. And against teams like Boston, Cleveland or Texas, throwing fastballs behind was like, good night.”

Seven more wins had followed, and Hudson was a cover boy again. He beat the Twins again June 14 and the cocky gunslinger returned. He struck out Matt Lawton. Lawton, who struck out on a combination of splitters and changeups, yelled at Hudson to “be a man and challenge” him, presumably with a fastball. Hudson pointed at the Twins’ dugout with his glove, motioning Lawton to take a seat.

“It was competition,” Hudson said of his duels with Garciaparra and Lawton, both All-Stars.

But something else had changed as well. The split-finger pitch, so dangerous to the overaggressive hitter, was in truth not a strike. Neither was the changeup in most cases. Now, Hudson was throwing both pitches for strikes, which no longer allowed hitters to sit on the fastball.

By mid-August, Hudson was 13-5 before he took another pounding by the Cleveland Indians on August 23 that jumped his ERA to 5.23. But then he hit stride during Oakland’s run for the A.L. West Division title by defeating the White Sox, Blue Jays, Devil Rays (twice), Mariners, Angels and Rangers in succession to finish his first 20-win season in the majors.

“I was watching him and this pitching thing isn’t easy,” A’s right-hander Kevin Appier said. “He got better command of his off-speed stuff. I was there with Rick (Peterson) in the pen when he started to turn things around. Tim is a pretty wise kid. He’s good at figuring out stuff on his own.

“I felt for him. During those rough times your confidence is so beat up, you start worrying about it. Then it goes beyond a bad game and you start asking, `Is my ability fading?’ But he doesn’t have to ask that question now, does he?”

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DID YOU KNOW … that Carl Yastrzemski was the last batter in the majors to win the Triple Crown in 1967 with 44 homers, 121 RBI and a .326 BA but if he put those numbers up in the American League in 2000, he would have placed second in homers, ninth in RBI and 11th in batting average? In the N.L. in 2000, those stats would have placed him fourth in homers, eighth in RBI and eighth in batting average.

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