April 24, 2024

Daniel Hudson has reached the pinnacle of his sport, experiencing the ultimate thrill for a closer when he threw the final pitch of the 2019 season for the World Series-winning Washington Nationals.

The 37-year-old right-hander hopes to scale what seems like another mountain this spring as he attempts his second comeback with the Dodgers after missing most of the last season and a half because of knee injuries.

“Stubbornness, I don’t know,” Hudson said with a grin, when asked what brought him back this spring. “I just knew I didn’t want to go out like [I did in 2023].”

Hudson spent a full year rehabilitating from surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left knee, an injury that ended his promising 2022 season with the Dodgers in late June, only to sprain a ligament in his right knee just three appearances into his return, ending his 2023 season in July.

But Hudson is determined to not let his latest setback end his career. He is back in camp with the Dodgers on a minor league contract and appears to have pitched well enough in his first four Cactus League outings to solidify a role in what should be one of baseball’s deepest bullpens.

“I think Huddy looks really good — he’s going to be in our bullpen,” manager Dave Roberts said this week. “We’ve just got to figure out the buildup because he missed significant time last year. It’s more making sure we have open conversations on where he’s at physically and performance-wise as we start the season.”

Hudson’s contract, which will pay him $2 million if he makes the big-league roster and features another $2 million in incentives, includes a clause that allows him to opt out of the deal if he is not added to the major league roster by March 15.

But Hudson will probably stay if the Dodgers assure him he is in their immediate plans, even if he is not added to the roster for the season-opening series against the San Diego Padres in South Korea on March 20-21.

Hudson could open the regular season on the injured list, on a minor league rehabilitation stint or in extended spring training in Arizona.

“I just don’t think there’s a hard date for Huddy,” Roberts said. “That just speaks to the relationship that we have with him and the conversation. When he’s ready, when we feel he’s ready, then we’ll make that decision.”

Hudson gave up two runs and four hits, struck out three and walked three in 3 ⅔ innings of his first four exhibition games and is scheduled to pitch in Saturday’s game against the Texas Rangers at Camelback Ranch.

His fastball has touched 96 mph, and the shape of his slider is good, but his overall command has been a tick off, with many of his misses in his last outing against the Angels Tuesday night just inches off the plate.

“The slider at times has been really good, and the fastball velocity has been consistently good,” Roberts said. “I think the command at times has been in and out, but Huddy is a guy that we’re not too concerned about right now, given what he did last year.”

Hudson had back-to-back Tommy John surgeries in 2012 and 2013, but he was derailed by a pair of balky knees in 2022 and 2023.

The reliever was 2-3 with a 2.22 ERA and five saves in 25 games in his first season for the Dodgers in 2022, when the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee popped during a June 24 game at Atlanta.

Hudson underwent surgery and endured numerous setbacks during a year-long rehabilitation before finally returning in the summer of 2023, throwing a scoreless inning with two strikeouts at Kansas City on June 30 and a scoreless inning with a strikeout and a walk against Pittsburgh on July 3.

Two nights later, Hudson injured his right knee on a pitch to Pirates first baseman Carlos Santana, who flied out to left field for the second out of the ninth inning.

Fueled by guts and adrenaline, Hudson found a way to win a six-pitch duel with Jack Suwinski, throwing a nasty slider to strike out the Pirates slugger with the bases loaded on his 29th pitch of the inning to close out a 6-4 Dodgers victory.

When he got to the clubhouse after the game, his right knee burned with pain. Hudson was diagnosed with a sprained medial collateral ligament and sat out the rest of the regular season.

Hudson resumed throwing in September and might have returned for the second round of the playoffs had the Dodgers not been swept by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League Division Series.

“I got close and would have been available for that next round if we got past Arizona,” Hudson said. “I felt like if I gave my knees a little bit of time to recover in the offseason and we started moving around a little bit, I was going to give it another go.”

Hudson told the Dodgers he preferred to be treated like any other non-roster invitee to spring training, not a 14-year veteran with a World Series ring.

“From the get go, I told these guys that I wanted to throw when I’m needed to throw, and if I have to go on the road and pitch, I’ll do it,” Hudson said. “I just want to get on a regular schedule and prove that I still have something left in the tank.”

Hudson has impressed the Dodgers enough in the last month to warrant some kind of early season role, but he is not quite in midseason form.

“It feels really good,” Hudson said. “I have a couple games under my belt, and other than normal soreness, I’m not really feeling much of anything else. It’s more trying to get that execution and stuff and trying to get my legs back under me.”

Those legs failed Hudson in the last two years. A decade ago it was his elbow that blew out. Hudson doesn’t expect to have an injury-free season at his age, but if he could just hold the major ligaments, tendons and muscles of his body together for seven months, he will gladly live with the results.

“I’ve been through so much, and when I get hurt, I really get hurt,” Hudson said. “That’s the frustrating thing … I really, really wish that I could have, like, four- to six-week injuries instead of a freaking year.

“But like I said, I just didn’t want to go out like that. So, you know, if we decide in a week or two that it’s just not working, I’m more than happy with what I’ve done in my career. I just wanted to give it one more shot.”

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