John Donovan
Friday April 29th, 2005

In Oakland, for the better part of five years, the three friends took turns beating up the rest of the league. First Tim Hudson got his chance, then Mark Mulder and, finally, the kid with the big curve, Barry Zito. The trio that became known as the Big Three fed off each other's successes, picked each other up after the rare failure and, not coincidentally, blew away the rest of the American League West.

They have been split up now, across three different time zones and two leagues. In a lot of ways, they are back where they began. Zito has remained with the A's in California, where he grew up. Mulder, born just south of Chicago, has returned to the heartland with the St. Louis Cardinals. And Hudson, who grew up in Alabama, is back in the South after signing a long-term contract with the Braves.

How the three fare as solo artists will be an interesting study during the next five years. Friday night, two of the A's former Big Three will face each other for the first time when Mulder starts for the Cardinals, and Hudson for the Braves, in Atlanta's Turner Field.

"We have some good memories, but it is what it is now," Hudson told me recently. "I think all three of us are mature enough and far enough along in our playing careers that I think we'll be OK."

So far, at least two of the three -- the two who happen to be in Atlanta on Friday night -- are more than OK. Hudson is second in the NL with an 0.96 ERA (he's 2-0 in four starts) and Mulder, after throwing 18 straight innings without allowing an earned run last week, is 2-1 with a 3.10 ERA in four starts.

The lefty Zito is struggling with an 0-4 record and a 6.60 ERA. But he is in a much different situation than the other two, the leader of a young, perennially rebuilding team with an offense among the weakest in the league. In his five starts, the A's have given Zito just 1.80 runs an outing. Only two AL pitchers have had worse run support.

When the three of them were in Oakland Zito, Mulder and Hudson averaged almost 16 wins a season. Hudson was a 20-game winner in 2000, Mulder won 21 the next year and Zito won 23 in 2002, along with the AL Cy Young Award. The three combined to win more than 66 percent of their decisions from 2000-2004 as the A's went to the playoffs in four of those years (2000-2003).

They were three young aces in a loose clubhouse on a winning team built for pitching. And they loved just about every minute of it.

"It was just a lot of fun. That's what I'll remember. The relationships, the great time we had. Pretty much everybody was pretty good friends on the team," Hudson said. "Mulder and Zito and I, we were obviously really good friends. We worked well together, we had a lot of success together. We were three very different people, personality-wise, but at the same time, we enjoyed each other, for sure."

The competition among the three, too, spurred Hudson, Mulder and Zito to heights they probably couldn't have reached by themselves.

"I would not be the pitcher I am today without pitching with those guys," Mulder said. "We pushed each other, in nothing but a good way, to be better. Nobody wanted to be the weak link, you might say. We all had our years when the other two outshined one of us. I became better because of it."

Faced with upcoming free agency for his valuable pitchers, Oakland general manager Billy Beane decided to trade Mulder and Hudson this offseason, and the question ever since has been who got the best end of the deals.

The A's chose to keep Zito, either because they thought he was the most valuable of the three or because they could get more by trading the other two. The A's restocked with young pitchers including Dan Meyer and Juan Cruz (from the Braves in the deal for Hudson) and Danny Haren and Kiko Calero (from the Cardinals for Mulder). Even if the A's struggle this year -- they are 11-11 -- they look poised to again be a low-budget force in years to come.

The Braves gave up a lot of talent to get Hudson, and they thought enough of him to sign him to a $47 million extension that could keep him in Atlanta through at least 2009. He has combined with John Smoltz, Mike Hampton, John Thomson and Horacio Ramirez to form one of the most formidable rotations in the majors.

And the Cardinals, who own the best record in the National League (14-6), appear to have the ace they so badly needed in the World Series last season. It's a perfect role for Mulder, who knows he doesn't have to dominate for this stacked ballclub to win.

"I loved playing in Oakland. But losing those guys [to free agency] year after year after year ... it was frustrating," Mulder said. "So much of it was dependent on the three of us, how we pitched. Everything was made such a big deal about it. It's exciting to go somewhere where the ... tension ... isn't Mulder, Hudson, Zito, you know? Trust me. It's very nice coming into a situation like this."

Monday, Mulder and Hudson talked on the phone about Friday's game. Zito has said he will try to watch. The Big Three won't be far from anybody's mind.

"I don't think any of us would be as good as we are right now if we didn't have the three of us early on in our careers," Hudson said. "But a few years from now, people won't even remember we pitched together, to be honest with you. It's not like we did anything really great. We didn't win a world championship together. We got our butts kicked every year in the first round. But we did great with what we had. We're back where we started now, I guess. Which is kinda cool."

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