Inside the incredible return of Arizona pitcher Daniel Hudson

·MLB columnist

SAN DIEGO – About two weeks ago, at 5:30 a.m., a scream echoed through Daniel Hudson’s house. He didn’t mean to yell so loud. He couldn’t help himself. Of all the ways to derail what he’d worked more than two years for, all the boneheaded things to do. His elbow was finally healthy, and now he wasn’t going to be able to use it because of a stupid toe.

An hour earlier, Hudson woke up to give his newborn daughter a bottle, and then his frenetic bulldog, Milley, started whimpering. So Hudson dragged himself up to let her out, clomped toward a door and pulled a classic exhausted-parent maneuver: He smashed his foot against the jamb. Pain seared toward his big toe when he landed awkwardly. He was certain it was broken. If it all weren’t so ridiculous, so typical, he might have laughed. Only he couldn’t. Not with his past behind him and his future so close.

“Who else would this happen to?” he asked.

Nobody. In a sport plagued by career-changing elbow injuries to pitchers, Hudson represents the worst-case scenario. In 2012, the year after he broke out as a frontline starting pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Hudson tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He underwent Tommy John surgery to fix it, and less than a year later, he returned to the mound for his first rehabilitation start. In the second inning, his arm tightened up, his fastball velocity cratered and his nightmare actualized. His UCL, the tiny band of tissue that stabilizes the arm and allows pitchers to pitch, snapped again.

A rehabbing Daniel Hudson looks on during spring training. (AP)
A rehabbing Daniel Hudson looks on during spring training. (AP)

So began another round of rehab, of grueling days doing the same tedious work, of mental hurdles and fractured fortitude, of reinvention mechanical and personal. Nearly 15 months he endured that, his senses growing ever keener. He imagined himself touching the ball, smelling the grass, hearing the crowd, seeing the signs, tasting the major leagues once again. Only three pitchers had returned from back-to-back Tommy John surgeries. Hudson was on pace to do it in about half the time it took them. And there he sat, in a crumpled heap, the sun not yet peeking over the horizon, felled by a tiny digit.

He feared the worst when he went to get X-rays. Medical machinery had been rather unkind to him, and the pain hadn’t abated. The results came back that day: negative. No break in his toe. Big break for his comeback. Because with a tape job and some rest, he could stay on the rehab schedule Diamondbacks trainers mapped out months earlier, not just for pragmatism but because after all he’d been through, Daniel Hudson needed to see even the slightest Bic flick at the end of a tunnel that never seemed to end.

From the start, they penciled in two days: Sept. 3 or 4. If everything went right – if his elbow didn’t bark in a half-dozen minor league outings and his fastball returned and he didn’t break a damn toe in the middle of the night – he would get his wish.

“I just want to pitch,” Hudson said. “I just want to pitch one more time to say I did it.”

– – – – – – – – –

In his dreams, Daniel Hudson would stand on the pitcher’s mound, the place he felt more comfortable than any, and start his delivery. It looked exactly like he wanted it to: arm path short – not the loping mechanics that left his elbow prone to injuries – hand on top of the ball, strong follow-through. The ball would come out exactly like it was supposed to. And then it would flop to the ground, as though weighed down by his own awful history, and die on the grass.

Never did he wake up from the dreams in a cold sweat, grabbing his elbow, frightened. Every day he faces this, the bogeyman of all pitchers, the knowledge that at any instance, on any pitch, his elbow can blow. The existence can be miserable. Twenty-six months of inactivity taught Hudson to ignore the cries of fear and hear instead what matters.

“Huddy, you’re in next inning.”

He heard that. It didn’t register immediately. The Diamondbacks were facing the San Diego Padres on Wednesday night, and they’d told Hudson he would pitch only in a low-leverage situation. A close game Tuesday nixed that, and with a pair of comatose offenses, the prospect seemed unlikely Wednesday as well. The score was 4-1 when Mel Stottlemyre Jr., the Diamondbacks’ bullpen coach, relayed the message delivered from the dugout. Hudson figured the lead or deficit would be at least four before he was summoned. Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson also knew Hudson’s parents, Sam and Kris, flew in from Virginia and were leaving Thursday morning, and that he wanted so badly to pitch in front of them and his wife, Sara, and little Baylor, all of six weeks old.

Daniel Hudson, background, celebrates Arizona's victory with his teammates. (AP)
Daniel Hudson, background, celebrates Arizona's victory with his teammates. (AP)

Hudson started warming up. His shoulder felt tight. He didn’t say a word. He knows his arm better than he knows himself, and a few extra throws would loosen it up. Though the routine was unfamiliar to him – he’d been a starter his entire life until the surgeries prompted Arizona to shift him to a bullpen role – he never doubted his self-awareness. The shoulder loosened up, and after 22 pitches, he walked down a flight of stairs, through the center-field fence and ascended a major league mound to pitch the eighth inning.

Following his final warm-up pitch, Hudson scanned Petco Park to find his family. No matter how sparse the crowd, he didn’t see them in Section 114, Row 39. Sam clasped his hands. Kris calmed him with a soft pat on his leg. Sara held a pacifier in Baylor’s mouth.

Hudson threw his first pitch. Fastball, 94, spiked in front of the plate to Abraham Almonte. He was officially a major leaguer again. He threw another at 95 for a strike, and third baseman Cliff Pennington locked eyes with Hudson. He asked if Hudson was OK. His facial expressions looked weird, and he was shaking his right arm, and for the rest of Hudson’s career, everyone around him will intuit the slightest tics to mean something more, because something was more twice already.

His arm didn’t hurt; he shook it because his sleeve was caught on his elbow. And his face wore the look of a man dumbfounded. He was here. He was actually here. He was goading Almonte into a groundout and Yangervis Solarte into a lineout and Alexi Amarista into a groundout. He went 13 pitches, nine for strikes, sitting at 95 mph, dotting a pair of changeups, flipping a slider for good measure.

“I’m fine,” he told Pennington. “I’m fine.”

Hudson strode a step slower than everyone else following his perfect inning. His catcher, Miguel Montero, the only Diamondback with more tenure than Hudson, wrapped an arm around him and said: “That was awesome.” A welcoming party of dozens awaited him in the dugout. He tried not to cry.

“They all had just the biggest smiles on their faces,” Hudson said. “The best part was feeling like I was part of the team again. You can only feel so much a part of the team when you don’t travel and you’re at home and you’re not pitching and you high five after a home run and you just try to be as good a teammate as you can be without showing how frustrating and [awful] it is to watch a Major League Baseball game and know you’re not going to play for a long time. Then it happened again. And to do it again, over. Just feeling like you actually accomplished something to help the team when you haven’t done that in 2½ years. It was ... ”

He never finished the sentence. Nor did he need to.

– – – – – – – – –

The Diamondbacks are a righteously awful baseball team. Opponents have outscored them by 96 runs, the most in the National League. They’re 23 games under .500, in the running for the worst record in all of baseball. Septembers for teams like Arizona represent the grandest sort of drudgery.

To see a clubhouse like the Diamondbacks’ on Wednesday night was foreign. Wins are nice, sure, and Arizona beat San Diego 6-1. All anybody cared to talk about, though, was an eighth inning thrown by a 27-year-old who isn’t allowed to pitch but once every three or four days. Conversations throughout the room all went back to the same place.

“The dude is special for doing what he did,” Diamondbacks starter Wade Miley said. “He was a week away from being back in the big leagues last year.”

“He was so close,” fellow starter Trevor Cahill said.

“This dude busted his ass last year,” Miley said. “A week away.”

“We’ve had a lot of Tommy John guys,” Cahill said. “And he hasn’t said a single bad thing during his rehab, about it sucking, about not wanting to do it. Not one.”

“He just did it,” Miley said.

“It’s the most tedious thing,” Cahill said.

“This was one of the cooler things I’ve been a part of in baseball,” Miley said. “We went to the playoffs in ’11. That was cool. But this – this is incredible.”

Daniel Hudson fires a pitch against the Braves in June 2012 in his last appearance before Wednesday night. (AP)
Daniel Hudson fires a pitch against the Braves in June 2012 in his last appearance before Wednesday night. (AP)

Everyone kept talking about respect, how much Hudson deserves for playing baseball soldier and working, working, working, without so much as raising a fuss. And that’s true to a point. He didn’t complain in the clubhouse because worthlessness consumed him. He felt like he didn’t belong already, and to compound that with supplementary bitching ran the risk of making him exactly the sort of player he loathed when he was healthy.

Never did he badmouth the late Lewis Yocum, the doctor who did his first surgery and whom someone more misguided might’ve scapegoated for its failure, nor did he backtalk Ken Crenshaw, the trainer who oversaw every iota of Hudson’s rehab both times. He soaked in the advice of Brad Arnsberg, the wonderfully funny and extremely long-winded pitching coach hired to work specifically with him. Hudson was baseball’s finest commodity, the excellent young starter, and the Diamondbacks poured time and resources toward him to ensure this worked.

And then it didn’t. The day before Dr. James Andrews performed the second surgery on Hudson’s elbow, he said Hudson was the fourth case in a 1,200-player study whose new UCL failed before he could return. Though it’s becoming more frequent – the Padres’ Cory Luebke, the Mets’ Jeremy Hefner and the Braves’ Jonny Venters all suffered the same injuries this season – the figures still gobsmacked Hudson.

Never did he show it, not when teammates would come up to him and ask how his elbow was doing. He wanted to say, “I haven’t played baseball in two years. How do you think it’s doing?” He didn’t. He knew that they cared, that this was their effort to include someone who felt he didn’t warrant inclusion. Because even if he still cracked jokes and wore a smile, the truth is that two days matter for Tommy John patients: the day the doctor cuts and the day they’re back on the mound. The in-between feels like forever.

– – – – – – – – –

Seven hundred ninety-nine days. That’s what forever felt like. Seven hundred ninety-nine interminable days, and this message on his phone when he returned to the clubhouse:

So proud of you. All the mountains you’ve had to climb over and how you came back strong just makes me so proud to be your brother. You were great tonight. So proud, brotha.

Dylan Hudson was back in Virginia. He’s headed to Phoenix later in the month to spend some quality time with his older brother and see his niece, and like everyone else watching, he didn’t think this was going to happen Wednesday. The Diamondbacks’ starter, Josh Collmenter, was breezing through the Padres’ lineup, to the point that Hudson sat stone-faced in the bullpen, secretly wishing Collmenter would have a 12-pitch at-bat or three. Dylan texted Kris, saying how bored Hudson looked, how bummed everyone was that Day 799 was looking like 800.

Then the call came, and so did the tears, Dylan’s from 3,000 miles away, Kris’ into Sam’s shoulder, Baylor’s because she had a dirty diaper, Sara’s later on in a hotel room when the gravity of everything finally hit. She held her husband when his phone rang with the news that he tore his UCL for a second time, when he said he wasn’t going to do this again, no way, because it was too tough, because what if it happened a third? And now not only was he back, but Gibson, his manager, was saying how he hopes “this is just the beginning of a long career for Daniel Hudson.” And there was power in this – in 13 pitches, in three outs, in one moment that was finally a reality.

For months, Hudson scripted in his mind how he was going to answer the questions asked of him after the outing. When the camera lights illuminated his face and highlighted the panoply of gray hairs that sprouted on his head over the last couple years, his mind went blank. He couldn’t put into words what he felt, perhaps because what he felt defied them. Hudson had been fooling himself. The theft and recovery of livelihoods knows no script.

Amid his bout with a tied tongue, Hudson did manage to encapsulate the night. He just wanted to pitch, and he did pitch.

“Even if I go out tomorrow and it blows again playing catch, it was worth it, just to try again,” he said. “It’s been a long road. Thankfully today came.”

It came, and it went, and it will come again over the next few days, when he heads back to the mound in search of a career he once thought lost. In the meantime, on the night of his revival, Daniel Hudson lounged in a folding chair and sipped a cup of orange Powerade spiked with a nip of vodka from a teammate. The room had emptied. He savored the solitude. It felt like his clubhouse again. There was nowhere in the world he’d rather be.

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