Finally healthy, Hudson rediscovering path to dominance

July 17th, 2023

This story was excerpted from John Denton’s Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

So many times over the past 2 1/2 seasons, would be alone with this thoughts -- whether grinding through an arduous rehab session or in some obscure city pitching in the Minor Leagues -- and he would try to piece together where things went so wrong for his once-promising career.

Hudson, as many Cardinals fans will remember, was a first-round pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, and he zipped through the system to earn a big league promotion in '18. Once there, the right-hander was an instant success, going 4-1 with a 2.63 ERA in his first season. He backed that up in '19 with 16 wins and a top-five finish in the National League’s Rookie of the Year voting.

During much of that time, the 6-foot-5 Hudson used his heavy sinker to compile a dazzling 18-5 record for the second-best home winning percentage (.783) in the history of Busch Stadium III. Clearly, the talented hurler was on a trajectory to be a Cards ace for years to come.

Then he got hurt. And then, he got hurt again. In September 2020, Hudson underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and didn't pitch again until a year later.

After a rocky 2022 and a pedestrian Spring Training in '23, Hudson found himself out of the big leagues and toiling away for Triple-A Memphis with an unsightly 6.00 ERA and a pain in the neck (more on that later).

“I do reflect on it a little bit, but one injury can change everything, and we all know [Tommy John surgery] is a part of this game,” said Hudson, who needed ligament replacement surgery in his right elbow in September of 2020. “The trajectory I was on, it is what it is. But I still think I can get back to that point.”

Finally, the 28-year-old Hudson seems to be doing just that again -- even though he had to capitalize on an obscure opportunity to prove himself at the big league level. Added to the Cardinals' roster on July 1 via the 27th player rule adopted for doubleheaders, Hudson pitched 2 2/3 innings of scoreless relief in a Cards win over the Yankees.

Pitching in the Majors for the first time in 2023, Hudson came in to face Yankees sluggers Giancarlo Stanton and Anthony Rizzo, and he retired them by pitching with conviction. That effort led to a callup, and thus far Hudson has allowed just two earned runs over 10 innings in four outings. His first win came on Saturday against the Nationals, and his return has been a feel-good moment for a pitching staff that has had far too few of those this season.

“I can look super far ahead, and I can look back, but I don’t think that does me any good,” said Hudson, who missed part of 2020 and most of '21 with the arm injury, then experienced debilitating neck spasms in '22 and '23. “I’ve got to stay where my shoes are and be present with what I’m doing.”

Manager Oliver Marmol said the version of Hudson pitching now for the Cardinals is far different from the one who struggled with his pace and his control, and who often didn’t trust his stuff in 2022.

“You’ve got to reach that point where you stop thinking about some of the negative things that can happen and instead think about what’s possible,” Marmol said. “I think Dak got to the point where he said, ‘OK, what’s possible if I just keep my head down and get after it and not worry about all the other stuff?’ There’s freedom in that. He’s had his bumps in the road, but you have to figure out your way through it. Some guys do and some don’t, and our hope is that he does.”

Things were so bad on the injury front that at one point last season Hudson couldn’t raise his left arm. He also had hand numbness because of the spasms in his neck. Improvements in health have helped him finally look more like the 16-game winner from 2019 instead of the one who questioned if he could ever recapture a level of dominance again.

“If I went down the whole list of things I tried, I could show you a whole book of stuff,” said Hudson, who threw his best curveball in years on Saturday to fan Washington’s Michael Chavis with the bases loaded. “Now, it’s about getting that consistent mindset and believing in what I’m doing. I’m really buying into the thought of just getting better day by day.”