In his 6½-year tenure as manager, Mike Matheny repeatedly said he wanted his closer to feel like the king of the world. The ninth-inning man held the fate of the game in his hands, so no one warmed up while he was on the bump.
Manager Mike Shildt goes about bullpen usage a little differently. He tends to act with measured aggression, and that meant calling down to the bullpen when Bud Norris allowed an RBI single in the ninth inning Monday night. Rookie reliever Dakota Hudson started to loosen up for the Cardinals.
Two managing Mikes, two different philosophies.
“(Norris) was working a little bit harder than he’s worked in a little bit,” Shildt said after the Cardinals 7-6 win over the Nationals. … “At that point, it just made some sense to get Dakota and have him ready in case something happened.”
Sure enough, Norris coughed up the lead. Shildt walked to the mound, and the 23-year-old Hudson trotted in from the bullpen. His task wasn’t easy: stop the Nationals from scoring with a runner on third and only one out.
Hudson faced Wilmer Difo first. The Nationals second baseman chopped a ground ball to shortstop Paul DeJong, who looked back the runner at third and fired to first for the out.
“I feel like you’ve got to be aggressive in every count,” Hudson said. “I just pretty much put all my faith in (catcher Yadier Molina). He mixed pitches and I just tried to execute the best I could.”
Hudson then struck out leadoff man Adam Eaton, who didn’t swing at an 0-2 curveball. Home plate umpire Mark Carlson rung up Eaton, and the inning was over.
DeJong led off the Cardinals half of the ninth, and he pulled a home run into the left-field bullpen to end the game. The blast handed Hudson the victory — his third in eight games. Under Matheny, the young hurler might never have warmed up.
The Cardinals drafted Hudson out of Mississippi State in 2016, and they developed him as a starter through most of his career in the minor leagues. But the team needed bullpen support when it activated Hudson in late July, so that became the right hander’s role.
“I’ve been thrown in some different situations,” Hudson said. “There’s a first time for everything, and (Monday night's) experience was something I’ll always remember.”
The pitcher said he has been tailing Mike Mayers, who also used to work as a starter, and asking about preparing for relief appearances. He’s also talked to Norris, who worked as a starter earlier in his career.
Hudson got his legs loose in the eighth inning against the Nationals but didn’t start throwing until Shildt called in the ninth. In part because of the work he put in an inning earlier, Hudson felt comfortable quickly.
The manager praised his pitcher after the game. He said the Cardinals didn't give Hudson any wiggle room, and the right hander didn’t wiggle.
“I think Dakota has pitched all year with the ability to pitch in almost any situation,” Shildt said. “This guy has got composure. This guy has got stuff (and) all the makings of what you’re seeing being a quality big-league pitcher.”
Less than a month ago, Hudson was pitching for AAA Memphis. Now he’s earned a spot on a big-league club fighting for a playoff berth, and he’s found an essential role.
Teammates noted Hudson’s composure after the game, including fellow rookie Patrick Wisdom, who said the hurler is mature for a 23-year-old.
The pitcher didn't just show maturity against the Nationals. He showed he wanted the challenge, and he is capable in whatever role the Cardinals need.
“It’s a big situation every game, but you can’t be afraid of the moment,” Hudson said. “You’ve got to be a part of it.”
As Molina made his way out of the clubhouse Monday night, he made a point to stop by Hudson’s locker. The catcher offered a fist bump. Hudson may not have been king of the world, but he’d done his job.