Zito gets chance to shine in Game 1
Ex-A's teammate Hudson among many rooting for lefty
OAKLAND -- Tim Hudson's Atlanta Braves missed out on the postseason this year, so he's been little more than a "soccer dad" for the past 10 days or so. But the former member of Oakland's vaunted Big Three hasn't missed much of the A's postseason run.
Not so much because he's had a hard time cutting the cord since A's general manager Billy Beane stunned baseball by trading Hudson and Mark Mulder during a three-day span in December 2004. Rather, Hudson is keeping tabs on his best friend in the game.
Oakland's Barry Zito will get the ball for Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Tuesday against the Detroit Tigers, and Hudson will be among the many glued to his TV set.
"I'm so happy for Zito, man," Hudson told MLB.com by phone from his new Atlanta home Sunday afternoon. "He's one of the best people I've ever met, in or out of baseball, and anything good that comes his way is well-deserved. I can't tell you how proud I am of that guy."
Hudson was one of the few people who, in the aftermath of Beane's Big Three breakup, felt that Zito would thrive as the leader of Oakland's revamped young staff. And two full seasons into Beane's gamble, Zito, who went 11-11 with a 4.48 ERA in the worst season of his seven-year career during the Big Three's final campaign together, has re-established himself as an elite pitcher and more than justified Hudson's faith.
Zito went 16-10 with a 3.83 ERA during the regular season, and in Game 1 of the AL Division Series, he pitched eight brilliant innings in Minneapolis to beat probable 2006 AL Cy Young winner Johan Santana at the Metrodome, ending Santana's streak of 23 starts there without a loss.
"That was 'Z' at his best," Hudson said. "He's always loved the pressure of the spotlight, and it doesn't get any tougher than what they asked him to do against Johan. But it didn't surprise me at all. And it hasn't surprised me to hear that all the young guys out there in Oakland are praying to him. He's a guy who just loves to talk about pitching and exchange ideas, and that's why I said he'd be perfect for what they needed after the trades.
"He's on a mission now. You can see it in his eyes."
Zito, who allowed a run on four hits against the Twins, said he's heard from Hudson himself since the playoff started but suggested he hasn't heard such glowing praise.
"We're in touch all year," Zito said. "But we don't talk about a lot of baseball stuff."
Zito downplays his role as a leader on Oakland's staff, but everyone from fellow starters Dan Haren and Rich Harden to closer Huston Street do indeed stop by the Altar of Barry to bow down.
"You couldn't ask for a better friend," Haren added. "A true friend is someone who's always there for you, and there's never been a time when I needed Zito that he wasn't there for me, even when he had his own stuff to deal with."
Said Harden: "You look at what he's accomplished, being a Cy Young winner (2002) and all that, and he still works as hard as someone trying to make it to the big leagues. His preparation is the best you'll ever see, and that's something every pitcher in here notices."
Zito, who was formally named Oakland's Game 1 starter Sunday, insisted that he had no preference regarding the opponent in his first trip to the ALCS. He'd have loved to take on the challenge of trying to tame the Yankees' star-studded lineup, but the Tigers offer similarly daunting matchups on the mound.
"It's not like it's going to be any easier than beating Johan," Zito said. "No matter who they throw ... the Tigers just beat the New York Yankees, so they obviously have a great staff and a great lineup."
Zito held that lineup to a run on three hits over seven innings in his only start against the Tigers this season on April 20, but Detroit came back to win that game, 4-3, leaving Zito with one of his eight no-decisions.
"That was a long time ago," Zito said.
One thing that hasn't changed is that Zito is headed for free agency this winter, and the A's have hinted strongly all year that he'll be out of their price range. So it's possible that Tuesday could be Zito's last outing at McAfee Coliseum in green and gold.
"I'm really not looking at it that way, because I'm obviously hoping to pitch here in the World Series," he said. "But it's great that the team trusts me to help keep the home-field advantage. I haven't pitched at home for a while, either (since Sept. 22), and that's part of what made getting out of the first round so nice."
The Big Three never got out of the first round together, and Hudson is now the only member of the trio who hasn't seen an LCS at all; Mulder got to the NLCS with the Cardinals last year and this season.
But while Zito said watching the A's in October might be "bittersweet for Huddy in a way," Hudson said there's been nothing bitter about it.
"It's all sweet," he said. "And I hope it keeps getting sweeter for 'Z.' He deserves it."
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.