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Hudson, Braves on winning track

April 22, 2007|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,Sun Reporter

When you're the Atlanta Braves and you win year after year, the postseason is expected.

When disappointment finally happens, as when Atlanta's record-run of 14 consecutive National League East titles was broken last year, the fall -- and the Fall -- can be pretty hard.

"It's tough. When you have been there consistently every year and not to be in it last year, it was a heartbreaker," Braves center fielder Andruw Jones said. "But this is the life [other players] go through. And you need to make adjustments."

Give the Braves credit. They're adjusting.

Like the Orioles, the Braves decided upgrading the bullpen should be their No. 1 priority over the winter. So general manager John Schuerholz traded away slugging first baseman Adam LaRoche for Pittsburgh Pirates closer Mike Gonzalez and dealt starter Horacio Ramirez for Seattle Mariners' setup man Rafael Soriano. Those two, along with re-upped closer Bob Wickman, have turned a weakness into a strength.

Combine the bolstered bullpen with Atlanta's uncanny ability to mine homegrown talent -- Jones, third baseman Chipper Jones, catcher Brian McCann and right fielder Jeff Francoeur, among others -- and the team is again a factor in the East.

But the real key to the early success is a guy who was in Atlanta last year, a guy who was discovered by another organization, a guy who commands big bucks.

Right-handed starter Tim Hudson doesn't fit the Braves' blueprint.

But he grew up cheering for them as a kid in Alabama. And when the Oakland Athletics were looking to dump him pre-free agency, the Braves and Hudson jumped at a chance to unite.

In March 2005, three months after the trade to Atlanta, Hudson signed a four-year, $47 million extension before having thrown a regular-season pitch for the Braves. It was a risk on his part -- he was one of baseball's best young pitchers and was eschewing free agency for hometown stability.

And it was somewhat uncharacteristic for the Braves, who don't often spend lavishly for players who haven't proven themselves in Atlanta.

In 2005, he was limited by an oblique strain but went 14-9 with a 3.52 ERA. Last year, however, was a disaster.

Hudson, 31, was 13-12 with a career-worst 4.86 ERA -- more than a run higher than his big league average. The failure went beyond numbers. Since 1999, when he was 11-2 as a 24-year-old rookie, he has had a certain mound presence. Not in 2006.

"I like looking around at my teammates and seeing that they have confidence in me, and last year I could tell they didn't have a ton of confidence in me when I was out there pitching," he said. "That was the first time I had ever had to experience something like that."

The crazy thing is Hudson knew what he was doing wrong. He was no longer as upright during his delivery and he was dropping his arm slot as he threw the ball, which led to flatter pitches and a lack of control.

Knowing, however, worsened the problem.

"It's hard to correct in the middle of the season and the middle of the game for me," Hudson said. "The bad habits were there, and I was trying to concentrate on two or three different things in my delivery and not really concentrating on making pitches, and I had some really bad results."

In 12 of his 35 starts, he allowed five earned runs or more. In the three previous seasons combined, he had given up five or more earned runs only 11 times. He went from All-Star to utterly hittable. And was mentioned in trade rumors -- including to the Orioles.

"It was really difficult, it was," Hudson said. "It was all pretty new to me, and it was frustrating to the point where I didn't want it to ever happen again."

This winter, Hudson went back to the basics: drill after drill to fix his delivery, to get his "muscle memory back, that way you don't need to think about it on the mound."

Now he's doing, not thinking.

One NL scout said Hudson is again throwing on a downward plane, aiding the drop of his sinker, and he's regained the feel of his devastating split-fingered fastball.

"There were times he didn't throw the split at all last year," the scout said. "Now he is back being the Tim Hudson we knew in Oakland."

Hudson had a 2.16 ERA in the spring and has been even better in his first four regular-season starts, allowing just two earned runs and 16 hits in 29 innings. He won the most recent NL Player of the Week award and is 3-0 with a 0.62 ERA.

"He's throwing more strikes right now, getting ahead of the hitters," Braves manager Bobby Cox said "And he has dynamite stuff, dynamite."

Every year the Braves find a way to be competitive. Now, they've bolstered their bullpen and their young hitters continue to mature. But the best addition would be the re-emergence of the Hudson they traded for. Not the shaky, self-conscious one from 2006.

"It was definitely the most unfun year I have ever had," Hudson said. "[Now] I feel as good as I have ever been, and hopefully I can go out there give us a chance to win every time out."

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