In the most important game of the season (so far), the St. Louis Cardinals will turn to one of their best pitches down the stretch — rookie Dakota Hudson.
The 25-year-old Georgia native will face the Atlanta Braves in Game 4 of the National League Division Series on Monday.
“Kind of used to what the adrenaline is going to be,” said Hudson, 16-7 with a 3.35 ERA for the Cardinals, leading the team in wins as a rookie this season. “You kind of gotta control it ... see how far you can go with it.
“Regardless of what it is, I’m going to give it all I’ve got. My effort level, my process, my focus ... is going to be the same.”
That effort, that process, that focus, led to one of the best rookie campaigns by any Cardinal pitcher in history. He led all first-year major-league pitchers in victories (16) and all National League rookies in starts (32). He was second among National League rookie pitchers in ERA (3.35) and winning percentage (.696), and third in innings pitched (174.2) and opponents’ batting average (.245).
For all his success, Hudson remains a work in progress — he walked 86 batters (nearly one every other inning), hit nine batters and allowed almost 1 1/2 runners per inning — and has had to channel his emotions in his first year in the big leagues.
“I try to keep everything (to myself),” he said. “There’s a lot of things you can see and don’t see, whether it’s frustration, happiness or just pure excitement to be around the game.
“I don’t want my emotions to take away from what I’m prepared to do.”
Sometimes that emotion has shown through, so much so that veteran Adam Wainwright had to step in.
“Dakota had a couple of games this year where, he’s such a competitor, he’s such a fiery (guy) — you all don’t probably really know that, but he’s so fiery inside, he wants to win so bad,” Wainwright said.
“Occasionally I’ve had to settle him a little bit. Last year I had to calm Jack a little bit. But this year, man, I haven’t had to do a lot with them (the young pitchers), they’re a bunch of studs, I’ll be honest with you.
As the season unfolded, the 25-year-old Hudson settled into his role, joining ace Jack Flaherty (23) as the young stalwarts of the rotation.
Indeed, Hudson and Flaherty became the sixth pair of 25-and-under pitchers in a Cardinals rotation in the postseason, joining the likes of Paul and Dizzy Dean, (1934), Nelson Briles and Steve Carlton (1967), John Stuper and Dave LaPoint (1982), Greg Mathews and Joe Magrane (1987), and Joe Kelly and Michael Wacha (2013).
A common denominator for all those teams: Each reached the World Series, something Flaherty, Hudson & Co. are trying to do.
There’s a way to go before that happens, but the journey continues with Hudson’s planned start today against the Braves.
If recent history is any guide, the Cardinals can expect a good effort from Hudson:
▪ In his last nine starts, going back to Aug. 9, Hudson went 6-1 with a 1.81 ERA, allowing 11 runs in 54 1/3 innings. The Cardinals won seven of those starts.
▪ Hudson was 9-2 with a 2.75 ERA in 17 starts at Busch Stadium, with the Cardinals winning 13 of those games.
▪ He went 14-4 in his final 24 starts after May 18, trailing only Washington’s Stephen Strasburg (15 wins) for most victories by an NL pitcher in that span.
▪ His nine wins after the All-Star Break tied him with a couple pitchers named Adam Wainwright and Clayton Kershaw.
Heady stuff for a Tennessee native who spent his childhood as a Braves fan. His first game was at Turner Field in Atlanta, but he doesn’t remember much of that 2-hour car trip from his home midway between Nashville and Atlanta.
“My first game was a Cardinals game,” he recalled Sunday. “We’ve got pictures when I was a kid, like a baby. One of the first games I remember, we sat in right field and Chipper Jones hit a home run probably two rows in front of me. My entire 8-year-old travel team was right there trying to get the ball.”
Wainwright, 38, another player who grew up in the Braves’ minor-league organization, has had a big impact on Hudson. The Cardinals’ veteran right-hander has been the big leagues for 15 seasons. Put another way: Waino made his major-league debut for St. Louis on Sept. 11, 2005; four days later, Hudson celebrated his 11th birthday.
“For me, (he says) just trust your stuff,” Hudson said. “He’s always talking about, you know, what you can do compared to everyone else, and he’s just always said if I go about business and do things the way I’m able to do, then that’s the only way I’m going to see results my way.
“(It’s) a confidence thing and also bring the reins back, focus on one small thing rather than seeing every small detail, which kind of allowed me to kind of find my focus early in the year.”
Typically, Wainwright downplayed his contribution to the rest of the rotation’s success.
“As far as my role as a calming presence, I don’t know if that’s what you were asking or not, but I’ll tell you, our pitchers have done just — Jack and Dakota and Miles (Mikolas) and (Michael Wacha), they’ve done an incredible job of doing that on their own,” Wainwright said. “I don’t really have to say a whole lot to them.“Occasionally I’ll have to light a fire under somebody or occasionally I’ll have to be like, ‘Hey, that’s all they get; relax, whatever.’ But for the most part, our young pitchers have pitched above their age level.”
The opportunity — and challenge — will be there again Monday for Hudson, who will be striving to keep his emotions in check under the bright lights of postseason play.
“You can have moments where your arm is super live but then again you’re also up in the zone,” he said. “I think it’s more just about me honing what I do and taking a step back and really having extra focus on my process ...
“Because once I get out there, I can compete with anything I’ve got.”
Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, has been writing about the Cardinals for the Belleville News-Democrat since 1985.