The cortisone injection that he took in late May certainly helped, but Daniel Hudson needed more of a mental boost than a medicinal one to clear the final hurdle in his return from the left-knee surgery that ended his 2022 season last June.
“I think it just got to a point where I was like, ‘You know what? I’m ready. I’m done checking boxes here. Let’s just freaking go,’” said the Dodgers reliever, who was activated before Friday night’s 9-3 victory over the Kansas City Royals in Kauffman Stadium. “I just focused my mind on that, and now I’m here and ready to go.”
Hudson, a 36-year-old right-hander who was the team’s top reliever before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament a year ago this week, admitted there were times over the past few months that he thought this day would never come.
He hoped to be ready by opening day but endured several setbacks in March and April, his balky knee buckling under the stress of throwing off a mound, and he was unable to begin a minor league rehabilitation assignment until June 6.
“It was a frustrating few months, very frustrating,” Hudson said before the game. “I just want to play again, you know?”
Hudson finally got his chance Friday night, entering in the eighth inning with a six-run lead, giving up an infield single and striking out two — Nick Pratto with a 96-mph fastball and Edward Olivares with an 86-mph slider — in a scoreless inning.
“Yeah, it felt good,” Hudson said afterward. “I haven’t had a chance to check everything, but the ball seemed to be coming out pretty good. I got some pretty defensive hacks on some fastballs, and the slider was pretty sharp, so overall, pretty good.”
Mookie Betts hit solo homers in his first two at-bats for the 26th multi-homer game of his career and added an RBI single in the fourth inning, an RBI double in the eighth and two walks to pace the Dodgers’ 11-hit attack.
Rookie right-hander Bobby Miller threw 5 2/3 solid innings, giving up three runs and five hits, striking out four and walking one, to earn the win, rebounding from two brutal starts in which he was torched for 13 earned runs and 17 hits in 92/3 innings against the San Francisco Giants and Houston Astros.
Hudson’s knee is not 100% — it probably never will be — and he knows he’ll have to navigate through some pain and discomfort if he is going to reclaim a high-leverage role in a thin bullpen that entered Friday with a 4.62 ERA, the fifth-worst mark in baseball.
But Hudson showed during a rehab stint in which he yielded four hits, struck out 13 and walked one in 8 1/3 scoreless innings in eight games — five in the Arizona rookie league and three for triple-A Oklahoma City — that’s he’s strong enough to boost a young and inexperienced relief corps that desperately needs another back-end arm.
“It’s just another adult in the ‘pen,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “He’s been battle tested. He’s got a good heart rate. He gets lefties and righties out. He’s got the respect of everyone in the ‘pen and on the club. So certainly, a huge addition.”
Hudson is no stranger to adversity, long layoffs and pressure situations. He returned from two Tommy John surgeries to forge a solid 13-year career that reached its peak in 2019, when he closed games for the champion Washington Nationals and threw the final pitch of the World Series’ Game 7 win over the Houston Astros.
He went 2-3 with a 2.22 ERA, five saves and a team-leading 0.90 WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) in 25 games for the Dodgers last season.
Roberts said he will try to ease Hudson back in lower-leverage situations such as Friday night, which is fine with the reliever.
“I’ve [closed games] the last few years, and I really enjoy doing that, pitching in those situations and in tight games, so we’ll see where it goes from here,” Hudson said. “But as of right now, whenever he needs me to throw, I’ll be ready to take the ball.”
If Hudson can regain his 2022 form, he would give Roberts another attractive late-game option to go with Evan Phillips, Brusdar Graterol, Caleb Ferguson and Yency Almonte.
“That’s the hope,” Phillips said. “We expect him to be Daniel Hudson, and I think he fully expects to be an impactful part of our bullpen. Adding a piece like him in any sort of role is going to help us win games.
“So maybe we’ll ease him into certain situations here and there, but getting the competitor back and getting that talent back as we head towards the postseason, I think is gonna be super important for us.”
“He’s been battle tested. He’s got a good heart rate. He gets lefties and righties out. He’s got the respect of everyone in the ‘pen and on the club. So certainly, a huge addition.”
— Dodgers manager Dave Roberts on Daniel Hudson
Hudson is confident his stuff will play in the big leagues. His fastball sat between 93-95 mph and touched 96 mph during his rehab stint, “and I’m hoping we get a couple more ticks up on the velo with more adrenaline,” he said. The velocity and shape of his 89-mph slider “is good, right where I want it,” he said.
Hudson also brings a veteran presence that the bullpen has lacked with the departures of pitchers such as David Price and Kenley Jansen.
“In years past, when we had Huddy and guys like him, there was a calming presence in the bullpen of, ‘Hey, we’re gonna have this under control,’” Phillips said. “They kind of set the model for the younger guys.
“Having a stable piece like Huddy come in and be that reassuring factor, where we feel like we can rely on him in any situation, will help line up other guys in their most advantageous spots.”