By Jack Etkin
DENVER -- No major leaguer strives to be Comeback Player of the Year. It's a noble achievement, to be sure, and one that recognizes perseverance as well as performance. But no one wins this honor without having something go very wrong.
Typically, it's an injury, followed by a lengthy, tedious rehabilitation. Then, if the player is fortunate, he returns to his previous lofty level of achievement, completing an arduous path. It's not that simple, of course, since getting back on the field requires plenty of sweat, frustration and stop-and-start progress. It's a career arc San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Hudson knows well.
He was the National League Comeback Player of the Year in 2010. Tommy John surgery in August 2008 kept Hudson out of the big leagues until September 2009. He regained his form in 2010, going 17-9 with a 2.83 ERA for the Atlanta Braves.
Nearly one month into the 2014 season, Hudson, 38, has the strong beginnings for another notable comeback in a new and presumably final chapter of his career.
Hudson's 2013 season with the Braves ended on July 24 when he was covering first base. Eric Young Jr. of the New York Mets stepped on Hudson's leg above his right ankle, leaving Hudson with a fractured right ankle and torn deltoid ligament.
"That's the first time I'd ever broken a bone," Hudson said. "The timing was perfect for that to happen. Split second earlier or later, then it doesn't happen."
Hudson is 2-1 with a 2.40 ERA in four starts the Giants and will make his fifth Friday night at AT&T Park against the Cleveland Indians. He has allowed 23 hits with 20 strikeouts and has set a Giants franchise record to start the season with no walks in 30 innings. He's just the third pitcher in the past 101 years to begin the season with at least four starts in which he pitched at least seven innings without issuing a walk.
Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander did it for six straight starts with the Chicago Cubs in 1923. Tiny Bonham had four such starts in 1944 for the New York Yankees.
"It's been a nice little streak for me," Hudson said. "And obviously, it ain't going to last, I can promise you that."
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After last season, Hudson became a free agent for the first time in his career that began in 1999 with the Oakland A's and continued in Atlanta when he was traded to the Braves in 2004. Had he not been injured, returning to the Braves for a 10th season in Atlanta might have been a much easier process. There would have been some contractual give-and-take, presumably some standard negotiating and ultimately an agreement on a new contract. That's not what happened.
"From a health standpoint, it was more questions of you're going to 39 this year (on July 14)," Hudson said. "We're not quite sure of exactly where you're going to be physically, because at the time, I was only a few months out of surgery."
Hudson had deep ties to the South. He was born in Columbus, Ga., and went to high school in Phenix City, Ala. From there, Hudson went to Auburn for college and still lived in that area, just over an hour from Atlanta, while playing for the Braves. Gauging the market, sensing the interest level from other teams, mulling over the pros and cons of a possible move to another club in another part of the country -- this was all new to Hudson.
"Pretty early on, there was a lot of activity," he said. "And it was exciting. It was real exciting. And it got me motivated to really get back and show everybody that I can compete at this level. And to know that there was a lot of teams out there that was interested in my services, even though at the time, leaving Atlanta was a very tough and emotional decision, I realized early on that the possibility of me leaving was very real."
Giants manager Bruce Bochy said, "To be honest, I thought it would be real hard to get him out of Atlanta. So I was elated to have that happen."
Hudson was not a free agent for long. On Nov. 19, the Giants signed him to a two-year, $23 million contract that gives Hudson the right to approve any trade.
"The more I thought about it, the more I mulled it over, I just felt it was time to start another chapter in my baseball career," Hudson said. "It was nine awesome years in Atlanta. I had a chance to play nine years for my childhood team that I pulled for. Who gets to say that?"
Signing with San Francisco brought Hudson back to the Bay Area and his baseball roots. The A's drafted Hudson in the sixth round in 1997. He rose quickly and was in the majors in June 1999. Hudson has two daughters and a son, ages 12, 10 and 9, and both daughters were born in the Bay Area.
He has returned there with a distinctive resume and a vastly different pitching style. Hudson has a record of 207-112 and a 3.43 ERA. He is tied among active pitchers for most victories with C.C. Sabathia. His 124 ERA+ ranks sixth among active pitchers with a minimum of 1,000 innings. Hudson's 57.4 WAR ranks ninth among active players, and none of the eight above him are pitchers.
All the while, Hudson has undergone a transformation. He has struck out 10 or more batters 12 times. Six of those games were from 1999-2001. Just two came after his September 2009 return from Tommy John surgery, and the most recent was in September 2011.
"Strikeouts are sexy," Hudson said. "Having guys swing and miss is fun. To be able to just induce some weak contact is really frustrating for hitters. But for pitchers, it makes our job a lot easier, because we usually are going to be able to pitch deeper into games."
This season, Hudson has gone 7 2/3 innings on 103 pitches, eight innings on 101, 7 1/3 on 85 and seven on 93. He has done this for a Giants rotation that badly needed a front-line starter they could tuck behind Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain and ahead of Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong.
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Hudson remembers one of Greg Maddux's objectives throughout his long, successful career: Make the balls look like strikes and make the strikes look like balls.
"And I think that's something that's a part of my game as well," Hudson said.
Hudson throws a sinker that sits at 87-88 mph. But he complements that pitch with a cutter, giving him relatively hard pitches to both sides of the plate. He also throws a curveball, an occasional four-seamer up in the strike zone, along with a split and a changeup.
"They're kind of the same action," Hudson said of the latter two pitches. "It's just one day, one'll hang, and one day, one'll bite. Whichever one's biting, I'll usually try to use that day. At this point in my career, I'll throw damn near anything at 'em, if I feel I can get an out."
A scout who saw Hudson's first start of the season on April 2 at Arizona, when he allowed three hits with seven strikeouts in 7 2/3 scoreless innings, said, "The pitch-ability was good. You'd like the stuff to be better."
That wasn't meant as criticism so much as an age-related statement of fact. Obviously, no major leaguer at 38 is what he was at 28. But by having what another scout called "that ability to manipulate the strike zone," Hudson is able to succeed with the stuff he has by keeping the ball down, in general, and in the mold of Maddux, making his pitches appear to be enticing.
"He throws the ball through the zone with late movement," Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti said. "It's not early movement. When a guy is short of stuff and it's breaking early out of the hand, you can see the difference in the hitters. They recognize pitches early and (are) taking that same pitch and hitting balls in the gap. When it's a late movement, that's when it traps their bat. That's when you get those bouncing balls and swing-overs, things like that."
Hudson has allowed two homers in his 30 innings this season, both on April 13 at AT&T Park against the Colorado Rockies. Wilin Rosario put the Rockies ahead 1-0 in the second with a homer. And Justin Morneau clobbered a hanging sinker over the wall in left-center in the seventh to cut San Francisco's lead to 4-2, an uncharacteristically errant offering from Hudson, who has pitched 200 or more innings in eight seasons and has allowed 0.7 home runs per nine innings in his career, which ranks fifth among active pitchers with at least 1,000 innings.
"He can paint," said Rockies left fielder Carlos Gonzalez, who is 2-for-14 lifetime against Hudson with one double and one RBI and just one strikeout. "He's going to give you something on the plate, but nothing you can hit hard. He don't make too many mistakes."
Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins has an extensive history with Hudson. Rollins has hit four doubles, three triples and three homers against Hudson but overall has gone 19-for-84 (.226) with a .270 on-base percentage.
"He probably wants you to be comfortable up there," Rollins said. "Comfort gives you confidence. And he's like, 'That's good,' because he lets you be a little overconfident because you know you don't have to worry about getting blown away by a 95 mile-an-hour fastball. He's just going to tease you. Balls out of his hand look like a strike, and they fall right to the bottom of the zone when you swing.
"He knows what he has to do, and he does it. He doesn't try to do more, because he can't do more. He understands that. And that's an intelligent pitcher, that's a veteran pitcher, that's a seasoned pitcher and that's a guy who knows how to use his stuff to the best of ability."
Hudson has made 430 career starts, trailing only Mark Buehrle (433) among active pitchers. Hudson has never had a losing professional season. He won at least 10 games in 10 consecutive seasons, a streak that ended in 2009 when he was coming back from Tommy John surgery.
Hudson missed the first month of the 2012 season while recovering from surgery the previous November for a herniated disc in his back. But he finished 2012 with 16 victories, giving him a new double-digit victory streak of three straight seasons. He was headed toward a fourth last year, going 8-7 before his season-ending ankle injury.
Another comeback player award would be nice, of course, because it would reflect Hudson's performance this season. Regardless, he's doing what he has for years, giving his team a chance to win virtually every start but doing it now in ways that are more cerebral, maybe more satisfying.
"I still go out there and get after it, and I'm still a pretty high effort guy but not like I used to be," Hudson said. "I understand that for me stuff with location is more important than just pure stuff somewhere in the strike zone. I used to be a guy that I'm just going to throw some good stuff somewhere in the zone. Now it's a little different. I got to try to keep that stuff, but I also need to locate it.
"It's not easier now, but physically it's not as stressful for me because I understand I'm not a power guy anymore. Whereas when I was younger, I was pretty max effort most of the time, even up until probably recently, about 2010. The intensity out there on the field -- the knob's turned down from where it was when I was younger and like the knob was always on 100 percent."
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Jack Etkin has covered professional baseball since 1981 for such outlets as the Kansas City Star, Rocky Mountain News, Baseball America, The Sports Xchange and MLB.com.