GLENDALE, Ariz. – Baseball is a game of streaks, slumps and bad breaks, and when enough of them don’t go your way, you have two choices.
Punch a hole through a wall, or convince yourself that you’re due.
Tim Hudson is so overdue, he’s a library book from 1974.
In a Giants clubhouse full of World Series rings, Hudson’s fingers are bare. He is the winningest active major league pitcher, with 205 of them -- and a .649 winning percentage that ranks 26th all-time, right between Sandy Koufax and Randy Johnson. But the tale is so much different in the postseason.
In eight of the 10 playoff games in which Hudson has taken the mound, his team lost. In six division series as a participant, he hasn’t ever gotten to peer around the corner. The 2000 A’s, 2001 A’s, 2002 A’s, 2003 A’s, 2005 Braves and 2010 Braves all got bounced in that incredibly fickle, often cruel best-of-5 round.
(He’s 0-for-7 if you count last year’s Braves, which lost to the Dodgers in the NLDS while Hudson watched with his leg in a cast after fracturing his ankle in July.)
It’s not that Hudson has been a terrible postseason pitcher. Quite the contrary, actually. He has a 3.46 ERA overall and he left with the lead in four of those starts, only for the bullpen to blow it. He got knocked out of another after one inning because of an injury.
That 18-inning marathon that sent the Houston Astros to the NLCS in 2005? Hudson started it for Atlanta. Left with a 6-1 lead in the eighth inning, too.
And Hudson’s last postseason appearance, in 2010? Well, Giants fans identify it by another name: The “Brooks Conrad game.”
His teams have taken 2-0 series leads and blown them. They were a strike away from winning games they lost. They needed four outs at Fenway that they didn’t get. Jeremy Giambi didn’t slide, and Derek Jeter was Derek Jeter.
If Hudson ever joined the Cubs, with his luck, Steve Bartman would renew his season seats.
It is maddening, having an entire winter to kick around the thought of bad bounces.
“Every year it stunk, obviously,” Hudson told me earlier this month. “I don’t even like watching the rest of the playoffs, to be honest. It’s too hard for me. I just disconnect myself because you’re so disappointed you’re not still playing.”
Well, sure. Sisyphus probably doesn’t like gazing at rock gardens, either.
Yes, Hudson absolutely deserves a place with those Furies of antiquity, right there with Tantalus and the fruit tree he can’t reach and Ixion strapped to the wheel. Get your liver pecked out by an eagle for time unceasing, or be forced to hear A.J. Pierzynski yell “Booyah!” Same thing, really.
So, yes, Hudson is due. But there is a difference between due and deserving. The 38-year-old right-hander with a bald head and distance runner’s body knows better than to feel entitled, or expect justice, from the game he’s played his whole life.
And here is the amazing part: when he talks about his lousy playoff history, in his easy Alabama accent, there is no hint of bitterness in his voice. Wistfulness, maybe.
“A lot of those years, I feel we were better than the team that beat us,” said Hudson, referring especially to those A’s teams that couldn’t close out the Yankees and Red Sox after winning the first two. “I kind of think being young and naïve is a good thing. In Oakland, we’d think, `What in the world have we gotten ourselves into, playing the Yankees of the world in the playoffs?’ It’s crazy to say an Oakland team with a $40 million payroll was better than the Yankees with a $100 million payroll, but to a man, we thought we were. To this day, I swear we were the better team. We just didn’t finish, didn’t get it done.
“That’s the most disappointing part. In a five-game series, the best team doesn’t always come out of that. And a one-game playoff, that right there is brutal. The season shouldn’t ever come down to one game.”
Oh, right. There was one of those, too. Hudson didn’t pitch for the Braves in that 2012 wild card tiebreaker loss against the Cardinals. But of course, something weird happened. This time it was an infield fly rule invoked against the Braves on a pop-up in the outfield grass and a game played under protest. Played under flying debris from the stands, too.
“I look back on my pro career and it seems there always have been crazy, fluky things that kept our team from advancing to the next round,” Hudson said. “I’m not taking anything away from the teams that beat us. They did what they needed to do. But there was always something that happened.”
Better than anyone, the Giants appreciate the value of a well-greased skid. In addition to smarts, skill and savvy, they stumbled through a field of horseshoes and clover on their way to World Series titles in 2010 and 2012.
The Conrad game is a perfect example. Hudson was dominant in Game 3 at Turner Field, pitching seven innings and only allowing an unearned run after Conrad fumbled Cody Ross’s pop-up. Hudson even singled in the sixth to break up Jonathan Sanchez’s no-hitter. The game is memorable for what happened after Hudson left it.
The Braves threatened to take control of the series in the eighth inning when Eric Hinske’s pinch home run off Sergio Romo in the eighth inning turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead. But with victory one strike away and future bullpen ace Craig Kimbrel throwing jet fuel, Freddy Sanchez managed to poke a single. Aubrey Huff looped another off lefty Mike Dunn. And Buster Posey hit a grounder to the right place. Conrad bungled it – his third error of the game – and the Giants won to take a massive 2-1 edge in the series.
A day later, they moved on. Hudson did not.
“What I remember most about that is it was Bobby Cox’s final year,” Hudson said of the longtime Braves manager. “We felt a great deal of responsibility to send Bobby out on a good note, to take him as far as we could. That was a tough, tough series. Either team could have come away with any of those games.”
Hudson reflected on that series again this winter, when he had several teams pursuing him. What rotation had the stones to make a playoff run? What team had the moxie and talent? Who was due?
Giants GM Brian Sabean likes to say that re-signing Tim Lincecum before he could file for free agency helped him convince Hudson to come aboard. Hudson confirmed it.
Hudson still marvels over Lincecum’s start in Game 1 of that 2010 NLDS, when he struck out 14 amid a two-hit shutout. It was the most dominant postseason pitching performance in franchise history, and it needed to be. The Giants won 1-0.
“Timmy, with it all on the line, that had to be the biggest game he’d pitched to that point,” Hudson said. “He had zero room for error. And that’s the mark of a true gamer kind of pitcher, to perform the way he did in a playoff atmosphere. A lot of great pitchers have been in those situations and they don’t necessarily show they’re big game pitchers.”
The Giants have a stable of those guys. Madison Bumgarner hasn’t allowed a run in two World Series starts. Matt Cain owns a 2.10 ERA in eight postseason assignments. Ryan Vogelsong is 3-0 with a 1.09 ERA in his three playoff starts. Even the pitcher Hudson is replacing, former A’s rotation mate Barry Zito, changed his station in Giants lore with one season-saving night in St. Louis, and another against Detroit to win Game 1 of the World Series.
Those times, Hudson was watching.
“That was his time to shine,” said Hudson, smiling. “He’s such a great guy, a great teammate and he always worked his butt off to be as good as he could be. He had that ‘it factor’ going for him.”
Hudson hopes he finally has that factor this season. His ankle is responding well after surgery. He’ll be on schedule to open as the No.3 starter, lining him up to pitch the Giants’ home opener.
He already knows he made the right choice to come to San Francisco, and not just because of the horseshoes and clover. He is a foremost expert when it comes to watching teams celebrate on his field. And he was especially struck by how the Giants celebrated back in 2010.
They stopped their dogpile after a few moments, turned toward Cox, and applauded him.
“That was classy,” Hudson said. “I think everybody in Atlanta and the whole (Braves) organization really appreciated that. But you know, you have a guy over here in Bruce Bochy, and knowing what I know about him now, it’s not a surprise the players did something classy like that. I can see that since I’ve been here. Teams take their personality from their manager.
“I’m really glad to be in a place like this where guys get it. They understand.”
TIM HUDSON’S POSTSEASON CHRONOLOGY:
2000 ALDS -- A’s vs. Yankees:
Game 3: Hudson threw an eight-inning complete game at Yankee Stadium but Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez outdueled him in a 4-2 loss. One of the Yankees’ runs was unearned.
Result: The series went the distance but the Yankees crushed all suspense in Game 5 by scoring a six-run first inning off Gil Heredia, silencing the Coliseum crowd in a clinching, 7-5 victory.
2001 ALDS-- A’s vs. Yankees:
Game 2: Hudson tossed eight shutout innings to best Andy Pettitte in a 2-0 victory at Yankee Stadium as the A’s grabbed a two-to-none series edge.
Game 5: Hudson relieved Mark Mulder with the A’s trailing 4-3 in the fifth inning. He recorded five outs and gave up a solo home run to David Justice. The A’s did not score again and lost 5-3 as the Yankees celebrated in the Bronx.
Result: The series will forever be remembered for Game 3 at Yankee Stadium, when Jeremy Giambi didn’t slide while trying to score on Terrence Long’s double and shortstop Derek Jeter, miraculously backing up a throw in foul ground near the first base line, made an impossible flip to the plate. The Yankees won 1-0 and began their comeback.
2002 ALDS -- A’s vs. Twins:
Game 1: Although Hudson allowed home runs to Corey Koskie and Doug Mientkiewicz, Hudson walked off the mound at the Coliseum with a 5-4 lead and the bases empty in the sixth inning. The Twins went single-single-double-walk-RBI ground out against Ted Lilly on their way to a 7-5 victory.
Game 4: At the Metrodome, Hudson was locked in a 2-2 game in the fourth when shortstop Miguel Tejada made an errant throw and first baseman Scott Hatteberg followed with another off the mark to the plate. Lilly entered and got hammered in what became a seven-run inning on the way to an 11-2 loss. All five of the runs charged to Hudson in the inning were unearned.
Result: It was another Game 5 disaster for the A’s. A.J. Pierzynski hit a two-run home run off Billy Koch in the ninth inning to open up the Twins’ one-run lead, and although Mark Ellis responded with a three-run shot in the bottom of the ninth, Ray Durham popped up with the tying run on base. Minnesota won 5-4 and moved on.
2003 ALDS-- A’s vs. Red Sox:
Game 1: Hudson, having held his ground against future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, walked off the Coliseum mound with two outs in the seventh inning and the A’s leading 3-2. The very next batter, Todd Walker, took Ricardo Rincon deep. Hudson lost his decision but the A’s tied it with two outs in the ninth when Erubiel Durazo hit an RBI single off Byung-Hyun Kim. They won in the 12th on Ramon Hernandez’s squeeze bunt.
Game 4: Hudson took the mound at Fenway Park with a chance to pitch the A’s to a clinching victory. But his night lasted one inning. He strained an oblique and had to leave the game. Two days before that start, Hudson was involved in an altercation with Red Sox fans at a Boston bar – an incident that blew up after his injury. Both he and the A’s insisted the altercation had nothing to do with his oblique strain.
Result: Despite Hudson’s early exit, the A’s were four outs away from clinching in Game 4 when Keith Foulke gave up a two-run double to David Ortiz. The Red Sox won 5-4 to stay alive and Pedro Martinez outdueled Barry Zito to take Game 5.
2005 NLDS-- Braves vs. Astros:
Game 1: Andy Pettitte, now pitching for his hometown team, got his revenge against Hudson from 2001 in more ways than one. In addition to outpitching him, Pettitte also hit a double off Hudson to start the seventh inning with Houston leading 4-3. Morgan Ensberg hit an RBI single to chase Hudson and reliever Chris Reitsma got bombed as the Astros won 10-5.
Game 4: Hudson took the mound in the eighth inning with a 6-1 lead, and after a walk and an infield single, Bobby Cox went to his bullpen. Kyle Farnsworth served up a grand slam to Lance Berkman before the inning ended, then he gave up a tying homer to Brad Ausmus with two out in the ninth. It turned into the longest postseason game in baseball history, finally ending in the 18th on Chris Burke’s walk-off homer.
Result: A winner-take-all Game 5 looked like a sure thing when Hudson departed in Game 4. Turns out the Braves got to play nine more innings, but it wasn’t at all what they intended as Houston clinched in Game 4.
2010 NLDS -- Braves vs. Giants:
Game 3: Brooks Conrad had to play second base for Atlanta because Miguel Prado was injured, and his three errors cost Hudson and the Braves in a pivotal 3-2 loss. Hudson yielded only an unearned run (on a Conrad error) in his seven innings, and he even singled to break up Jonathan Sanchez’s no-hitter in the sixth. The Braves positioned themselves to win on Eric Hinske’s dramatic two-run, pinch homer in the eighth off Sergio Romo that put them ahead 2-1. But Freddy Sanchez’s two-out, two-strike single off Craig Kimbrel kept the Giants alive in the ninth, Aubrey Huff followed with a tying single off Mike Dunn and Buster Posey bounced a grounder that Conrad booted as the Braves lost the lead and the game.
Result: The Braves had the best home record in the major leagues in 2010. The Giants went into Turner Field and beat them twice, clinching the series in Game 4. If not for the fumbles in Game 3, the Braves would’ve had a chance to clinch on their home turf.
2012 NL WILD CARD PLAY-IN -- Braves vs. Cardinals:
Hudson didn’t pitch.
Result: The Braves lost 6-3 and the final game of Chipper Jones’ career will be remembered for umpire Sam Holbrook’s controversial infield fly rule on a ball that Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma let drop in the outfield grass. The call stalled what would’ve been a bases-loaded rally in the eighth inning. The Braves played the game under protest, and plenty of debris from the angry crowd, but the call was upheld as the umpire’s judgment and the Braves were sent home.
2013 NLDS -- Braves vs. Dodgers:
Hudson didn’t pitch after breaking his ankle in July.
Result: The Braves split the first two games at Turner Field but the series didn’t return home. The Dodgers romped to a Game 3 win in Los Angeles and Clayton Kershaw pitched them to a clinching victory in Game 4.