WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Daniel Hudson pitched the ninth inning of three postseason clinching Nationals wins last October. He recorded the final three outs of the National League wild card game, preserving a 3-2 victory over the Brewers. He notched the final four outs of the team’s NL pennant-clinching win over the Cardinals. And when it came time for the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series, Davey Martinez handed the ball to him and watched as he finished off the Astros and set off a wild celebration at Minute Maid Park.
Hudson may never again find himself pitching in situations of such great consequence. The ninth inning of three October clinchers? Only the best closers in baseball get those kind of opportunities, and clearly Hudson now qualifies for that distinction ...
“No, I’m not a closer,” he interrupted to say Thursday. “I’m just a reliever.”
Say what? Sure, Hudson had precious little closing experience during his long career before he was thrust into that role for a desperate Nationals club late last season. But now that he has recorded the most important saves in franchise history, doesn’t he finally consider himself a closer?
“No, I’m not a closer,” he insisted again.
Hudson has expressed this opinion before. He was acquired from the Blue Jays at last summer’s trade deadline to be Sean Doolittle’s setup man, even more specifically to be the guy who Martinez could summon to pitch out of a tight jam in the seventh or eighth inning because of his uncanny knack for stranding inherited baserunners.
But when Doolittle landed on the injured list in mid-August with a sore knee and a fatigued arm, Martinez informed Hudson he would be filling in as the club’s closer. Hudson informed his new manager that he really preferred not to pitch the ninth inning. For whatever reason, he just felt less comfortable closing out games than making his appearances earlier.
Why? For Hudson, it boils down to stuff. Or, more specifically, his lack of it.
“Historically, you look at lockdown closers, the guys who do it forever or who are really good consistently for a long period of time, they all have that go-to pitch. They know they’re going to get an awkward swing,” he said. “I’m not saying I don’t have that, because when I’m on, I know I can throw any pitch. I have three pitches I can throw at any time and be comfortable I’m going to get a guy out. But I don’t have a big sweeping breaking ball. I have a pretty good fastball, but I throw it in the zone a lot, so it gets a lot of contact. ...
“I don’t know how to explain it. It’s just very weird for me.”
Weird or not, Hudson certainly proved late last season he could not only handle the ninth inning but actually thrive in it.
He had eight save opportunities for the Nationals during the regular season and converted six of them (including the final five in a row). Then he made seven ninth-inning appearances in the postseason - not all technically were save situations because sometimes the Nats led by more than three runs and once they were tied - and never gave up a run.
All told by season’s end, Hudson made 15 of these end-of-game appearances for the Nationals, during which he posted a 1.59 ERA and 1.117 WHIP while converting 10 of 12 official save opportunities.
Hudson may try to shrug off what he accomplished, but his bullpen mates certainly don’t.
“I don’t know if he was trying to downplay it, to realign everybody’s expectations or whatever, but it’s really impressive,” said Doolittle, owner of 111 career saves. “Because he doesn’t have a ton of experience in that role, and he stepped in during August and September and was nails. And he ended up being the guy throughout the postseason run.”
For years, smart baseball people have tried to explain that closers shouldn’t be put on a higher pedestal than other late-inning relievers. The highest-leverage at-bats in a game may very well come earlier than the ninth.
“Like I try to tell all these guys, regardless of what inning you come in, you are the closer for that inning,” Martinez said. “Whether it’s the ninth, the eighth, the seventh, the sixth - you’ve got to get three outs. That’s your job.”
Why, though, is there still such a stigma about pitching the ninth inning? It shouldn’t be any tougher to record outs No. 25-27 than outs No. 22-24, yet just about every reliever in the sport will admit that psychologically there is a difference.
“There’s just no room for error,” Doolittle said. “There’s no gray area. Even if you pitch well, it might just not be your night. But at the end of the night, there’s an L next to your name. There’s tangible evidence that it’s your fault. So it’s a weird mind thing. It can really wear on you. Because very few other jobs in sports are that black-and-white. Maybe a hockey goalie. It doesn’t matter if you threw the ball pretty well and you just didn’t catch a break. Nope, this says it’s your fault the team lost. There’s no gray area, and that can be tough.”
Because of that dynamic, pretty much every manager in baseball - even the most progressive among them - still insists on naming a closer coming out of spring training. And Martinez has said he expects Doolittle to get the bulk of the save opportunities to begin this season.
But he still wants Hudson to be ready when the situation calls for him. Newcomer Will Harris, too.
“You want to try to justify who’s going to be your closer from Day One, but what if we have three left-handers in a row coming up?” Martinez said. “Do you use Doolittle in the seventh or the eighth? That’s a conversation we’ll have to have moving forward.”
So whether he likes it or, Hudson better be prepared to hear his name called for the ninth inning at some point. Surely, given what he accomplished last fall, he’s now comfortable with that assignment.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable,” he said. “It’s just a thing where the more reps you get, the less uncomfortable you become. But it’ll never be a thing for me where it’s no big thing. Pitching in the ninth inning is a tough thing to do. I just don’t think I’ll ever get to that point.”
Hudson’s performances in a bunch of huge ninth innings last October certainly seem to suggest otherwise.