Daniel Hudson was sitting at home in Arizona last winter, contemplating his memorable 2019 run to a World Series title and the frustrating and surreal 2020 that followed, and made a vow to himself to enjoy the 2021 season no matter what.
Why? Because he has no idea at this point if he’ll even get a chance to be on a big league mound in 2022.
“This is the last year on this contract, and I don’t know what’s going to happen next year. I really don’t,” the 34-year-old Nationals reliever said Friday during a Zoom session with reporters. “Regardless of what the numbers are going to be at the end of the year and how my stuff’s looking, you just don’t know. There’s a lot of really, really good pitchers on the market this offseason that didn’t get jobs. Personal friends of mine that are waiting for the phone to ring, and it’s just not ringing. Ten-year veterans who are going out there 70 times a year and putting up sub-(3.00 ERAs) are not getting big league offers. It’s crazy.
“Just to sit back and think about it, like: Man, I don’t know what’s going to happen. It might be my last season. You never know.”
This isn’t typically the kind of thing a reliever pitching extremely well in mid-May would be putting out there for everyone to hear. Hudson, though, has never been afraid to share his true feelings with the public, whether it’s admitting he prefers setting up to closing or admitting he might be forced into retirement this winter.
And it’s also why he’s making such a point to have fun this season, even when his team isn’t performing as well as anyone hoped it would.
Hudson isn’t to blame for that. He’s been electric on the mound so far, with a 1.59 ERA and 0.706 WHIP through his first 12 appearances. Opponents have produced only four hits off him, two of those homers.
The key to his success right now?
“I think it’s putting myself in good counts,” Hudson said. “For the most part - I could be wrong - but I feel like I’m working ahead for the most part. Being able to execute pitches when I’m ahead in the count. Getting myself in leverage counts is huge for me. I’m just trying to attack the zone, and get some contact and get out of there as quick as possible. For me to work ahead in the count, it’s really important.”
It also helps that Hudson’s velocity is up a tick. His fastball is averaging 97 mph, up 2 mph from three years ago. He hit 99 mph twice while striking out Bryce Harper in the eighth inning of Thursday’s win, a rare sight on the radar gun for a pitcher who has had Tommy John surgery twice.
Hudson may have a simple explanation for that one, too: He’s not pitching in front of empty stands this season.
“Oh, man, God, going from last year to this year, it really is night and day,” he said. “Not having anybody in the stands, it just didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel real. It was just a very odd circumstance to go out and not play a game that actually counted, and nobody’s in the stands. Even that first homestand, when we only had 5,000 people for opening day, even having that, it was an absolute adrenaline rush that I hadn’t felt since 2019. That might be part of your answer as well: Just having fans back in the stands helps, as well, with adrenaline.”
Though he’s been arguably the Nationals’ best and most consistent reliever, Hudson isn’t closing games like he did in 2019 and 2020. The ninth inning has belonged so far to Brad Hand, signed over the winter for $10.5 million. And until the last week, Hand was delivering, with 10 scoreless innings and three saves in as many tries.
Hudson certainly isn’t complaining about it. He has always expressed a preference for a setup role, especially one that allows him to enter with runners on base and pitch his way out of it (as he did Thursday against the Phillies).
“I love it,” he said. “I’ve always felt like I’ve done pretty well in that role, I don’t know if you want to call it fireman or jam guy. If there’s people on base, I really take pride in stranding those baserunners. Getting weak contact and missing bats is the name of the game when it comes to that. I really, really enjoy that kind of challenge, to come in with runners on and try to get out of it.”
Given how well he’s performed in that role since joining the Nationals 22 months ago, you’d think Hudson would have a future with this organization - or some other one - after his two-year, $11 million contract expires this winter.
And perhaps he will. But Hudson’s not going to worry about that right now. If somehow this is the last stop on his winding and ultimately successful career, he’s going to make sure he savors every moment of it.
“I’m guilty of it. I’ve done it before. I’ve found myself really stressing over stuff that doesn’t matter when we’re playing baseball,” he said. “It’s hard not to do sometimes. But I don’t know if it comes with age and just experience, and you get to this point in your career where you’ve done pretty much everything you possibly can do and you’re still hanging around and still fooling people. It just gets to the point where, what else can you do that’s bad or good in the game? Just go out and have fun and try to enjoy it.”