Hudson complete package in non-bulky A's container

September 16, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

It loomed as a showdown between potential 21st century aces. Alas, last night's rainout prevented Matt Riley from going head-to-head with Tim Hudson, a pitcher who embodies all that he might accomplish, all that he might be.

Hudson is 10-1 since joining Oakland on June 8 -- 17-1 on the season if you include his minor-league record. He has beaten Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez in their home parks. He could be American League Rookie of the Year.

Not bad for a 6-foot, 160-pound pitcher who hardly fits the classic profile of a power right-hander. Not bad, considering Hudson was selected behind two fellow Auburn pitchers and three rounds behind Riley in the sixth round of the 1997 draft.

See, it's not all just about ability, though Hudson has plenty of it. Oakland manager Art Howe, his players and coaches will all tell you the same thing: What sets Hudson apart is his preparation, his competitiveness, his presence.

"The maturity he exudes out there is uncanny," A's catcher Mike Macfarlane said. "He gets fired up for big games. And in pressure situations, he doesn't shy away from his pitches. He uses all of 'em. He knows his game."

Hudson's slight build, nasty stuff and powerful will evoke comparisons to the 5-11, 170-pound Martinez, a Cy Young and MVP candidate with Boston.

Andro? It's so retro.

If Hudson wins Rookie of the Year, the entire sport may downsize.

Riley, 6-1, 201 pounds, possesses a more standard physique for a pitcher, but that doesn't mean he's further along in his development.

Riley, a 20-year-old left-hander, is more than four years younger than Hudson. He was drafted out of Liberty Union (Calif.) High School and attended Sacramento Junior College for one year before signing with the Orioles.

It might take Riley four years to acquire Hudson's polish. For all anyone knows, he might not ever get there. Hudson's success is the latest example that things rarely are as they seem in baseball -- for better, and for worse.

"It's been crazy. It's been unbelievable," Hudson said earlier this season. "I've been blessed. Everything is going my way. It's kind of scary. It's almost too good to be true. It's kind of overwhelming sometimes."

Not only to Hudson, but also to his coach at Auburn, Hal Baird.

"I thought he would probably be a setup guy at the major-league level," Baird said. "He started for us. He dominated in college. But he's not a big kid. And it's a long grind from April to October."

Hudson was named college player of the year his senior season, going 15-2 with a 2.97 ERA as a pitcher, and batting .396 with 18 homers and 95 RBIs as a center fielder.

"He was two legitimate All-Americans," Baird said.

Still, Baird's reservations seemed to be confirmed when two bigger Auburn pitchers were selected ahead of Hudson in '97 -- the 6-6, 210-pound Bryan Hebson (Montreal's sandwich pick between the first and second rounds) and the 6-5, 200-pound Pat Dunham (Seattle's second-round selection).

Neither has risen above Double A.

"I told anybody who would listen that Tim had the best stuff, and it was not even close," Baird recalled. "He threw 88 to 92 mph, but it didn't matter. He had better life on his fastball than anyone we've ever had."

Hudson's fastball is even better now, and he also throws a split-finger, but his changeup is the pitch that made him a phenom. He refined it in the Instructional League two years ago with the help of A's pitching coach Rick Peterson, then the team's minor-league pitching coordinator.

"How do I hold it?" Hudson asked.

Peterson made three or four suggestions, and Hudson chose the one with which he felt most comfortable.

"I told him to throw a fastball with that grip, and see what we get," Peterson recalled. "The first changeup he threw was the one he's throwing right now. He said, `How was it?' I said, `Pretty good, Tim. You're not going to throw it a lot better over the next 20 years.' "

But as recently as six months ago, the A's still didn't know what they had. Hudson was 10-9 with a 4.54 ERA at Double A last season. Club officials told Howe that he might be worth a look at the end of spring training.

Hudson started twice against the San Francisco "A" lineup, and dominated both times. Howe joked, "Where have we been hiding this kid?" And on June 8, the A's promoted him to replace Tom Candiotti in their rotation.

"I caught his debut in San Diego," said A.J. Hinch, recalling Hudson's five-inning, 11-strikeout performance.

"Everyone gets so excited to see a Randy Johnson. Even [Roger] Clemens has that physical stature. But you don't have to be that imposing of a guy to dominate. Hudson has that attitude on the mound, he's going to get you out."

Yet, he also is unusually poised. Macfarlane said that on the night Hudson faced Johnson, the former slugger expressed more concern with "getting his stroke down" than getting out the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Howe said that Hudson pitches better when he's in trouble, displaying a knack for working out of jams.

"He truly understands what it takes a lot of young players a long time to learn -- that talent does not equal performance level," said Peterson, the A's pitching coach. "Preparation coupled with talent equals a high level of performance."

Hudson offers the entire package.

Let him be an inspiration to every young Oriole.

Let him be an inspiration to Matt Riley.

Pub Date: 9/16/99

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