After years of October heartbreak, Giants' Hudson gets World Series shot
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Tim Hudson is so old that when he made his major league debut, on a summer day in San Diego 15 years ago, Tony Phillips was the starting second baseman behind him, Tim Raines was the leftfielder, and Bill Clinton was the president. He's so old that he can tell you about the days pitchers used VHS tapes to scout opposing teams. Hudson is so old that the summer he broke into the majors, the guy who lockers next to him in the Giants' clubhouse, Madison Bumgarner, was a fifth grader in Hickory, North Carolina.
Yes, Tim Hudson is old — he's a man who knows that he's running out of tomorrows. "I'm a geezer," said the self-deprecating 39-year-old with the southern twang. "Right now, I'm the guy who's standing a little bit back and soaking everything in. Right now, there's probably no one more emotionally involved to what's going on the field than I am."
After two games in Kansas City, a blowout and another blowout, the World Series shifts to San Francisco for three weekend games with the series tied 1-1. Game 3 feels like it will swing the series — teams that win the third game in a 1-1 World Series has gone on to win 11 of the 13 championships. On Friday night in AT&T Park, 35-year-old Jeremy Guthrie will start for the storybook Royals. But the best story going will be that of the old bald dude taking the mound for San Francisco, a pitcher who — after 16 seasons in the majors, 11 career postseason starts, and seven playoff appearances with three different teams — will at last make his first career World Series start.
When you're 39 and have been a part of so much October heartbreak, you can feel the end of your career closing in. You feel the wins and losses more than ever, certainly more than if you're a fresh-faced 23-year-old in your first postseason, practically playing with house money. Hudson knows he's running out of time, and his teammates know it, too. In pursuit of their third championship in five years, the Giants don't need extra motivation, but you can feel that the players are emboldened by the idea of winning that elusive ring for Hudson, who signed a two-year deal with the team last winter.
"I'm just going to be happy for him when he takes the mound," Hunter Pence said after Game 2. "To play all those years, in so many postseasons, to finally have the chance… I can't imagine the feeling. Yeah, we've rallied around him. And we have so much confidence going home now because he's been so good for us, so solid, start after start. Huddy really saved us this season."
One early morning this summer, Hudson sat alone at his locker at AT&T Park and reflected on what was already becoming his most gratifying season, in which he came back from his gruesome 2013 ankle injury and had stretches where he pitched as well as ever — a particularly sweet feeling after the Braves practically kicked him to the curb this winter. Over the first two and a half months of the season, Hudson was one of the best pitchers in all of baseball and made the All-Star team. But he began to fade in late summer before falling apart in a disastrous September in which he posted a 8.72 ERA while dealing with a recurring hip problem.
Then the calendar flipped to October, and Hudson became one of the unsung heroes of the division series for the Giants. In NLDS Game 2, he threw 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball against the Nationals' Jordan Zimmermann in San Francisco's 18-inning win. Against John Lackey and the Cardinals in the NLCS, he gave up just two runs in six innings in Game 3 before running out of gas in the seventh.
"Right now, I'm more of a pitcher than I've ever been," Hudson said. "I don't have 95 in the tank anymore. I need to come up with a gameplan, try to disrupt the other team's timing, make strikes look like balls and make balls look like strikes, try to make them put them in play with the weakest contact I can. I'm too old to have 10 pitch at-bats. Strikeouts are sexy, you can punch out a lot of guys on 100 pitches in five innings, but it's much easier to try to get guys out on three pitches or less. To do that, though, you need a gameplan."
There was a time when he could blow away hitters with his fastball, but those days are long gone. Hudson's fastball now tops out in the low 90s; when asked in mid-June how many times he'd reached 92, he said, "I probably haven't." Bumgarner, dressing in the locker next to him, said, "You did the other day. Once." Hudson looked genuinely shocked. "Really? Okay, I'll take that."
For Hudson, each start is now a chess match, one that requires him to rely on scouting reports and video, now more than ever. "With video, the technology is so good now, I can do everything I need in less than half an hour, and feel really confident I can come up with a solid game plan," he said. "What's amazing is a lot of things I'll come across that blow me away. There are things that I wouldn't expect with some hitters that are serious red flags, as far as what they can or can't do. It's mind-boggling. If I would have had this when I was younger, I might have been pretty good."
Despite his fading fastball and low strikeout rate, Hudson, an extreme groundball pitcher whose signature pitch has always been his sinker, still has an above-average swing-and-miss rate. He has also been able to retain his magical ability to induce weak groundballs. As Tony Blengino at Fangraphs wrote earlier this year, "Hudson is one of the very best contact managers the game has ever seen."
Hudson's arsenal is ever-evolving; this year, he relied on his slider and splitter more than ever. "When I broke into the big leagues, I was mostly sinker-split, with occasionally a breaking ball," he said. "I started to develop a breaking ball, and over the years, I developed a cutter and slider. It's been a natural progression. If you're fortunate to play the game long enough, you're going to have to reinvent yourself a few times. I'm on my third reincarnation about now."
Then he added, with a smile, "My wife would kill me if I had one more in me."
Years ago, when he was a young pitcher on the Oakland Athletics "Moneyball" teams that made the postseason year after year, Hudson thought he'd be in a World Series long before the twilight years of his career. "Then your career goes along, with missed opportunities and falling short in the postseason, and it starts to sink in that maybe you'll never make it to the big dance," he said. "And you realize just how hard it is."
Tim Hudson is old. When he throws his weary fastball in the biggest start of his career on Friday night, this will be obvious to everyone. Hudson knows he's running out of time in his underrated, understated, borderline Hall of Fame career, and that's why a ring this October would mean as much to the old Georgian as anyone else. That's why, in Game 3, a man's legacy will be at stake.