ATLANTA -- A repeat victim of soaring pitch counts and inefficient, frustration-filled outings, Dakota Hudson’s pitch sequence against Dansby Swanson in Monday’s second inning proved to be a microcosm of the season thus far for the right-hander.
Stuck with no place to put Swanson after hitting No. 9 hitter Michael Harris II and walking superstar leadoff hitter Ronald Acuña Jr. on four pitches with the bases loaded, Hudson immediately attacked the Atlanta shortstop by landing two curveballs for strikes. From there, however, the at-bat deteriorated quickly for the 27-year-old Hudson.
After Swanson fouled off a pitch, Hudson’s 0-2 curveball didn’t draw a chase when it went wide of the plate and a 94.2 mph sinker also was in the dirt before it got to catcher Austin Romine. Then, Hudson’s next pitch -- a darting 94.2 mph sinker -- was spoiled and fouled off by Swanson.
At that point, Hudson seemed to be searching for something and turned to his slider -- a pitch that proved to be a non-competitive one when it finished a foot off the plate. Now behind in the count at 3-2, Hudson was forced to come back over the heart of the plate, and Swanson hit a 90.1 mph low slider into the gap in left center. Hudson didn’t get much help from rookie left fielder Brendan Donovan -- an infielder, by trade -- who pulled up after covering 73 of the 75 feet needed to make the catch on a ball that hung up for 4.0 seconds, per MLB Stats and Research. Ultimately, a non-barrel floater -- one with a 55 percent catch probability and a mere .100 expected batting average -- fell in for the hard-luck Hudson, and all three runners scored to put him and the Cardinals in a 5-0 hole.
Hudson’s inability to limit the walks and the regularity when he falls behind in counts has manager Oliver Marmol’s patience wearing thin. Said Marmol of Hudson potentially running out of chances as a starter: “This is the big leagues, and it’s about performance; this isn’t a tryout.”
Following a 2-hour, 37-minute rain delay, the Cardinals got within three of the lead following rookie Conner Capel’s first two career MLB RBIs -- one coming on a solo HR -- and another solo homer from fellow rookie Juan Yepez. However, St. Louis couldn’t dig out of the early hole and fell 6-3 to the surging Braves.
The Cardinals loaded the bases in the ninth, but star third baseman Nolan Arenado struck out and Albert Pujols hit a tapper back to the mound.
The overall sentiment from Hudson was frustration -- frustration over being unable to stay ahead in counts, frustration over giving up runs off soft contact and frustration about balls that should have been caught in the outfield. As for the Swanson at-bat, where he went from ahead in the count to falling behind, Hudson chalked it up mostly to bad luck.
“I don’t know about inability to put it away; that ball hung up a little while, and he found the right spot,” said Hudson, who fell to 6-5 after allowing six earned runs on nine hits and three walks and hitting another. “He popped it up, and it found a spot. He didn’t hit it very hard. That’s what made the results [seem like] a struggle, but it’s just one of those things. I feel like they hit a few balls hard that were over the plate and whenever I made a pitch, they seemed to bloop it. It’s just one of those days, I feel like.”
Marmol said the statistics bear out the fact that Hudson is more effective and gets weaker contact when he pitches ahead in counts. As a ground-ball pitcher who clearly does not have a high swing-and-miss rate, Hudson must find a way to limit the traffic on the basepaths, Marmol said. The things that infuriated the manager most Monday were the three walks and hitting Harris.
Steven Matz, who the Cardinals signed to a four-year, $44 million free-agent contract in the fall, is still two rehab starts away from being ready to return after suffering tightness and pain in his left shoulder in late May. When ready, he’ll certainly return to the rotation -- and he potentially could slot into Hudson’s spot if struggles continue.
“The reality is this: If you are a sinkerballer and you are a guy who gets a lot of contact and you don’t miss a lot of bats, you can’t give a lot of free passes,” Marmol said pointedly. “When you hit a guy and walk three, it’s just not a good recipe for success.”
Hudson, who has been working with pitching coach Mike Maddux on refining his pitches, feels he’s not far off from reversing his recent struggles.
“If you look at in-the-zone and out-of-the-zone pitches, I’m throwing quality pitches,” he said. “It’s marginal, and I don’t think there’s anything drastic I have to do. It’s cleaning it up and building the feel of being in the zone.”