Aces Wild If this is the year that the Athletics' three dominant (and cocky) starters put it all together at the same time, watch out

March 31, 2003

Unlike other notable threesomes (Tinker, Evers and Chance; Jordan,
Pippen and Rodman; Moe, Larry and Curly, to name a few), there is
no order to the trio of Oakland A's aces that slides off the
tongue naturally. In fact, when members of the Oakland
organization discuss pitchers Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry
Zito, they seem consciously not to mention them in the same
sequence twice. If you hear Zito, Mulder, Hudson first, you are
sure to hear Mulder, Hudson, Zito or some other permutation next.
"It must be because they're so equal," says third baseman Eric
Chavez. "It's like a circle. Anyplace you want to start is just as
good as anyplace else."

Round and round the circle goes. Although they are but three of
Oakland's five starters, Mulder, Hudson and Zito are in many ways
a rotation unto themselves. No matter in what order they appear,
they subject hitters to a full range of pitching styles and
temperaments. Batters have to step in against the demonstrative
Zito, a lefthander working up in the strike zone with his roller
coaster of a curveball; the intense Hudson, a righthander whose
split-fingered fastball is diving at the dirt; and the
unflappable Mulder, a lefty with downward movement on his pitches
more similar to Hudson's.

During the three years they have been in Oakland together,
Hudson, 27, Mulder, 25, and Zito, 24, have a combined .693
winning percentage (149-66). And over that span there have been
only 14 instances in which two of them lost in back-to-back
games, and only two occasions when they combined to lose three in
a row. Individually, their accomplishments are equally
impressive. They've all had a 20-win season. Mulder and Zito won
the 2001 and '02 American League Cy Young Awards, respectively.
Hudson has the most career wins (64), Mulder has the most
lifetime shutouts (five), and Zito has the lowest career ERA
(3.04). Hudson (7.03) and Zito (7.80) average more strikeouts per
nine innings than Mulder (6.10); however, with the fewest walks
per nine innings (2.67), Mulder has exhibited the best control.

Each has been Oakland's best pitcher in one of the last three
years. The idea that all of them could have a dominant season in
the same year is a most daunting prospect. And it could happen in
2003. If it does, the A's--who have the capable duo of Ted Lilly
and John Halama at the back end of their rotation--would be the
team to beat in the AL.

"They're not just three Number 1 starters, they're three Cy
Young-caliber pitchers," says Anaheim Angels manager Mike
Scioscia. "When Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were at
the top of their games for the Atlanta Braves, I think most
people believed it would be a long time before we saw three
starting pitchers on one team that could match them. Well, here
they are."

The Braves' trio thrived on friendly competition, continually
trying to outdo one another in every category from highest
batting average to lowest golf score, but Oakland's threesome has
no such intramural battles. They push each other in another way.
"Basically, it's a fear of being the worst," says Zito. "It's not
so much that each of us wants to outdo the others. It's more that
none of us wants to be the one who stops the momentum that the
other two have started. If the other two throw great and you
don't, you feel like a donkey."

Yet none of the three is the type to dwell on a bad outing. All
of them have a level of self-confidence--"You can call us cocky,"
says Hudson, "and you wouldn't be the first"--that allows them to
treat a loss as some sort of freak occurrence. "I've lost a Game
5 in back-to-back years," says Mulder, referring to defeats in
the deciding games of Oakland's Division Series against the New
York Yankees and the Minnesota Twins in 2001 and '02,
respectively. "So I've had to get pretty good at getting over
things. That's one thing all three of us have in common: We lose
a game, we don't sulk; we go back to work."

That cockiness also allows Zito, Mulder and Hudson to exchange a
fair amount of smack among themselves without anyone's taking
offense. They dig at each other in the way that only good friends
can. A favorite target for Hudson and Mulder is Zito's golf game,
or lack thereof. "I can't say he's horrible," says Mulder. "Well,
yes, I can. He's horrible." In fairness, Mulder does point out
that Zito is a novice, having played only a handful of times. One
of those occasions was with a group that included Hudson. "We
were going to this pretty high-class course," Hudson says. "When
I go to pick up Zito, he comes out wearing typical Zito: black
pinstripe pants and a powder blue bowling shirt with VINNY over
the pocket. If you're going to dress like that, you'd better be
able to play, and Zito can't play. But by the 10th hole we had a
few toddies in us, so it didn't really matter."

Zito and Hudson can make no such attacks on Mulder's golf
game--he's a 3 handicap, the best on the team--or much of
anything else about him, for that matter. "He's one of those guys
who drives you crazy, because there's nothing he's not good at,"
Hudson says, smiling. "He's tall, good-looking, a great pitcher,
whips everyone on the golf course and has all kinds of women
chasing after him. Makes you sick, doesn't it?"

Although the three men have different off-field interests--while
Mulder usually heads for a golf course, Zito reaches for his
guitar (he has been playing for three years and performs
occasionally in Bay Area coffeehouses), and Hudson, the only
married one, goes home to be with wife Kim and their one-year-old
daughter, Kennedy Rose--they do spend time together away from the
ballpark. Hudson and Mulder have been out with Zito enough to
know, for instance, that they'd better bring their wallets. "Zito
never has money," Mulder says. "If you take a cab with him, be
prepared to pay for it. He's not cheap, he just never has any cash."

Zito's peculiarities are well-documented (SI, Jan. 15 , 2001),
such as bringing his lucky fuscia pillowcase on the road,
collecting stuffed animals and burning aromatherapy candles in
his hotel room. At the same time he is a model of concentration
and preparation when it comes to pitching. "He's different, no
doubt about that, but he's also incredibly serious and mature
about what he does on the mound," says new A's manager Ken Macha.
"That really is the common thread among all three of those guys.
Their preparation--studying hitters, watching video,
conditioning, taking care of their arms, getting in the proper
frame of mind to pitch--all of that is uniformly excellent. They
are very different pitchers in terms of what they throw and how
they throw it, but their foundation is very much the same."

Hudson and Mulder have picked up on some of Zito's methods of
preparation, particularly the mental aspects. Zito believes in
"putting out positive energy," as he calls it, and he writes
notes to himself to help him maintain that energy. He posts the
notes everywhere, from the walls of his apartment to under the
bill of his cap. "There was a time when he was having trouble
getting lefthanded hitters out, so he wrote a note to himself
that said, ALL LEFTIES FEAR ME," says Hudson. "And after a while,
they did."

The Oakland aces study one another's pitching performance almost
as much as they scrutinize opposing hitters. Every one of their
starts is like a tutorial for the other two. "Sometimes it's not
anything specific, it's just stuff that rubs off," says Mulder.
"You watch Huddy handle a first-and-second, no-out situation. You
see the way he steps onto the rubber like he's in complete
control. It's nothing that one guy can communicate to another,
it's just something that you see and pick up on."

They do not sit down for long discussions on pitching mechanics
or philosophy. Their consultations tend to be quicker and
considerably hipper. "Last year I struggled against [Angels
outfielder] Garret Anderson," says Zito. "Dude was just rakin'
me. So I went to Mulder and said, 'How do you go at this guy?'
And he told me a few things. I was like, 'Cool, thanks.'"

Hudson is the one most often asked for advice, at least partly
because he's the elder statesman who beat Mulder and Zito to the
majors by a year. "I was already in Triple A when Huddy came up
from Double A in '99," says Mulder. "It seemed like he was there
for about a day, and then he was on to the big leagues." Hudson
asserts his seniority every now and then. As he walked past Zito,
who was talking to a reporter in the clubhouse recently, Hudson
said, "You'd better not be giving out any dirt on me, Zito. I got
some stuff on you, too." There was a twinkle in his eye but also
a touch of seriousness to the warning.

"It's not like one of them is the head of the group, but Huddy
sets the tone for Barry and Mark," Chavez says. "He'll always be
the one who got here and established himself first, and that
counts for a lot."

At 6'1" and 164 pounds Hudson is by far the least physically
imposing of the trio (Mulder stands 6'6" and Zito 6'4"), but on
the mound he may be the most intimidating. He stares down hitters
with a glare that reminds veteran A's observers of former ace
Dave Stewart, and giving up a hit doesn't concern him so much as
it angers him. "Huddy's like, 'O.K., that guy doubled--he got
lucky. Next hitter. Come on, come on, buddy. You and me,'" Zito
says. "Mulder and I are never going to have quite that same
personality on the mound, but we can borrow a little bit of that
approach and fit it into what we do."

There are times when the Three Musketeers atmosphere surrounding
the pitchers can make decisions difficult for a manager. At the
end of the 2002 regular season Zito was clearly pitching the best
of the three (23-5, 2.75 ERA). Even so, manager Art Howe chose
to stick with his normal rotation instead of altering it to allow
Zito to pitch Game 1. Howe's explanation was that he had equal
confidence in all three pitchers. But after Mulder was beaten in
Game 5 by the Twins, Howe was heavily criticized. "What people
didn't bother finding out," A's general manager Billy Beane said,
"was that Barry couldn't start twice. He physically was unable to
start with short rest."

Macha, then the A's bench coach, isn't saying what he would have
done in Howe's situation, but there were signs last year that
Zito may be emerging as first among equals. Then again, given the
way the three aces share the wealth, it wouldn't be surprising if
Hudson has the best season of them all and takes home the Cy
Young Award. That would, after all, complete the circle.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY V.J. LOVERO HAPPY TOGETHER Good friends and 20-game winners in three separate seasons, (from top) Mulder, Zito and Hudson aren't the types to mope over a loss. COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO MURDERERS' ROW Hudson, Zito and Mulder (from left) differ in pitching style, which makes it that much tougher on opponents TWO COLOR PHOTOS: BRAD MANGIN [See caption above] TWO COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL ZAGARIS STAYING LOOSE The oldest and only married member of the trio, Hudson (above right with Zito, and at far right), mixes well with the perfectionist Mulder, the flaky Zito--and the Britney generation.

"None of us wants to be the one who stops the momentum that the
other two have started," Zito says.

"Huddy sets the tone for Barry and Mark," Chavez says. "He got
here first, and that counts for a lot."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)