By Rob Rains
One of the stories Sam Hudson likes to tell about his son Dakota naturally involves Dakota’s older brother, Hunter.
Hunter is only a year older than Dakota, who believes their constant battles – literally and figuratively – as they grew up helped mold him into who he is now – the top pitching prospect in the Cardinals’ farm system.
“Definitely those moments, us playing in the back yard, is where I came from and what made me, having those times with my brother,” Hudson said.
Even Hudson will admit that his older brother, who played baseball at Tennessee Tech but never pursued a professional career, was more athletic when the boys were growing up. That’s how and why he developed what are definitely now two character traits – stubbornness and competitiveness.
“None of them ended very well,” Hudson said of the brotherly contests. “I would usually get pretty upset after I lost a continuous number of times.
“My dad knows for sure about how me and my brother competed. I feel like that’s a big part of who I am.”
The story which the dad remembers years later occurred when the brothers were about 9 and 10 years old, he said.
“Their mother had gone to the store, searching for paint for the house I think and she left Hunter and Dakota in the mini-van,” Sam Hudson said. “Something happened and they got into a fight in the van. They were playing a Pokemon game on their Game Boys. The van had a button that if you pushed it from the inside the door would slide open, and they were fighting and accidentally hit that button.
“They rolled over onto the outside of the van into the parking lot and one of the store employees had to bring them inside and ask the patrons in the store who they belonged to.”
The story did not surprise Sam Hudson but was just one example, he believes, that illustrates how Dakota learned from all the brotherly competitions.
“I guess it could have gone a couple of different ways,” Sam Hudson said. “Dakota worked really hard pretty much just to keep up with his brother. It worked out well for him. It taught him a lot about hard work and not being afraid to compete with people who are probably more talented and skilled than you.”
Hudson emerged from those battles to become a star pitcher in high school in Dunlap, Tenn., then went on to Mississippi State, where he spent a couple of non-descript seasons – throwing a combined 34 innings between his freshman and sophomore years – before the school brought in a new pitching coach, Wes Johnson.
From the first bullpen session Hudson threw for Johnson, Johnson was sold on Hudson’s ability, seeing just a few minor adjustments that needed to be made.
“He just really needed to see how good he was,” said Johnson, now the pitching coach at Arkansas. “I just tried to build a lot of confidence into him. Really at the end of the day that’s what he was missing.
“After I saw his first bullpen I went ‘Holy smokes.’ I’ve had some really good pitchers in my career but I thought, ‘This guy has a chance to be special.’”
Buoyed by Johnson’s confidence and assistance, Hudson became the ace of the Mississippi State staff, including allowing only one unearned run in nine innings in a start at Vanderbilt before a large crowd of family and friends. Mississippi State won the game 2-1 in 13 innings.
“I remember seeing the look on his face,” Johnson said about that day. “When you see that look on those young men’s faces about all the work they’ve put in, and now they see it (the results). Not only did he do it on a really big stage but he did it in front of his friends and family. It was awesome.
“Dakota was always a hard worker even when I got there but he was always working somewhat reckless in a sense. There was really no plan. You are working hard, but what are you working hard at? It changed every day. I gave him a really good plan, including his diet and weightlifting, that he’s doing right now. Obviously the young man took off.”
The Cardinals used the 34th overall pick in the 2016 draft to select Hudson, the pick they received as compensation for the Cubs signing free agent Jason Heyward.
Hudson began a quick climb through the Cardinals’ farm system, reaching Triple A Memphis at the end of last season, and so far this year has reeled off one quality performance after another.
Even after a no-decision in his most recent start on Sunday, Hudson’s 12 wins are the most in Triple A this season. In 17 starts, he is 12-2 with a 2.42 ERA, which ranks third in the Pacific Coast League. He was 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA in June, allowing just four runs in 34 innings.
Among all of his glittering statistics, one which stands out is that Hudson has allowed just one home run in 104 innings.
“I’ve been getting a lot of ground balls,” Hudson said. “That’s what I’ve been rolling with.”
Moving onto two big stages
Hudson will move onto two big stages this week, first on Wednesday when he will be the starting pitcher for the Pacific Coast League in the Triple A All-Star game against the International League in Columbus, Ohio. Then on Sunday, he will be one of three representatives of the Cardinals in the Futures Game, a part of the All-Star game festivities in Washington, D.C. Also invited to the game were Memphis outfielder Randy Arozarena, who will be on the World squad, and Springfield catcher Andrew Knizner, named as an injury replacement on the U.S. side.
The Cardinals’ representative in the Futures Game last year was Jack Flaherty, who followed up that performance by making his major-league debut on Sept. 1 and is now entrenched in the team’s rotation.
Flaherty’s success has been motivational for the 23-year-old Hudson.
“I’ve been very blessed to be around some really good pitchers and I’ve been able to pick up some things from them,” Hudson said. “The guys going up and down from the majors, I’ve been able to pick their brains and they’ve been really open to helping me out. It’s been a little different advice from different people.
“Flaherty was big into just finding out what worked for him and then running with it. For me, I just kind of watched and saw the trust he had in what he was doing. It helped me find a specific game plan and try to execute it better and better.”
Carson Kelly, also a former Futures Game participant, has caught several of Hudson’s starts this season.
“He just has a feel for pitching,” Kelly said. “It seems like every time he goes out he gets a little bit better. He has a feel for what he wants to do and has the ability to execute. If he misses he’s able to make the adjustment really quickly. That’s a good quality for a guy who is going to be elite.
“He throws everything with conviction. He’s very intelligent and he understands what he needs to do and how to execute in certain situations. He just has to get as consistent as possible.”
One scout for a National League team who has observed Hudson for the last two years sees a pitcher who profiles as a middle of the rotation starter in the big leagues, and sees that happening in the not-too-distant future.
“He’s one of the better guys who’s out there,” the scout said. “He’s young; he’s pitching in Triple A and leading the league in a lot of categories. From the first time I saw him he’s made great strides. The thing about him for me was that he looked further along than most kids his age. He was more of a polished pitcher coming out of college.
“It wasn’t like this guy had to come a long way from where he was. He had good stuff and fairly good command. He’s gotten stronger and more mature. It doesn’t take a great scout to see that he is going to be a good pitcher in the major leagues.
“He’s got all the pitches. There’s something about him, like Flaherty, and it’s not this simple, but they look like big leaguers. They just look the part.”
Business side holding Hudson back
There are a couple of reasons why Hudson will be pitching in the two jewel events this week instead of being on the Cardinals. One is that there isn’t a glaring need in the team’s rotation and the second is the business realities of the game.
Hudson is not on the 40-man roster, and furthermore, he does not have to be protected on the 40-man this winter either. Even with the clamoring of fans to promote him to the majors, one of the reasons the Cardinals are reluctant to do so is they consider those spots on the 40-man roster valuable and to use one for someone who doesn’t have to be protected is not a move they are inclined to make – unless and until the need overrides that desire.
Hudson, who was named for his great-grandmother, understands that and is willing to bide his time, content on using his time in Triple A to refine his game – and enjoy special moments such as those he will experience this week.
“That’s out of my control,” Hudson said about when he will get summoned by the Cardinals. “They have an idea of how they want to win a World Series and I’m just trying to pitch my way into that conversation so if I get the opportunity I will be ready for it.”
His brother’s help
One of the people Hudson will no doubt think about when that first major-league moment comes will be his brother Hunter, and all of the tangible and intangible skills he helped Hudson develop as the brothers were growing up. Dakota also has two younger brothers, but they are farther apart in age than he and Hunter.
“My older brother definitely was more athletic,” Hudson said. “He was the guy I was always one step below. He was always very talented for his age growing up. I was pretty good for my age but that wasn’t the standard I held myself too – I held myself to a higher standard as his younger brother. It was a competition thing. It definitely kept things interesting around the house.”
After college, Hunter Hudson went into business for himself and now owns a landscaping company in the family’s hometown of Dunlap, north of Chattanooga.
“Up until a certain point Hunter was always faster and probably stronger,” said Sam Hudson, a lawyer in Dunlap. “Until he was about 8 years old Dakota didn’t appear to have a whole lot of coordination. He amused us by a lot of his antics and how he would run. But then he suddenly blossomed into a different child from an athletic standpoint, but Hunter would still win a lot of their competitions.”
Dakota remembers a game the brothers played with one of their friends, taking turns pitching, hitting and catching, rotating when the pitcher got an out.
“I would go through hitting and catching pretty quickly but I would be pitching forever,” Hudson said. “I could never get an out.”
Sam Hudson is a West Point graduate, and while the boys were young the family often lived on a military base when he was on active duty. That’s where they were one day, playing dodge ball, when the competitors almost came to blows.
“A kid wanted to fight Hunter and Dakota jumped in and wouldn’t let Hunter do anything,” Sam Hudson said. “He handled it himself. The funny thing about Dakota was that he was more of a talker; his older brother was always pretty quiet.”
Sam Hudson believes his military background also had an influence on his son’s development, more so mentally than physically.
“One thing I always worked on him with was mental toughness,” Sam Hudson said. “That was something hammered into me at West Point and in military training. As far as his athletic ability and skill level at baseball, he probably exceeded my ability to help him there by the time he was 8 or 9.
“I focused on the areas I could help him with, the mental side of things. I think his background and discipline probably helped him tremendously.
“He’s always been an extremely hard worker. I always use the word stubborn, in a good and bad way. There were probably a lot of times when other people might have just stopped and said it was too much, but he was determined to do whatever he needs to do.”
Hudson will no doubt think about people such as his dad, his brother, Johnson and all of the other coaches he has played for over the years when that call to the Cardinals does come.
“That young man is a special young man,” Johnson said. “I love him like he’s one of my own. He’s a good one.”
One of Hudson’s strengths – developed all of those years ago – is the ability to live in the present and not worry about the future. His present includes being the father of a 2-month-old son, Nolan, born to his wife Ashlen in May.
His major-league dreams are still very real, as real as they were when he and Hunter were playing, and fighting, in the back yard.
“I knew when I was very young this is what I wanted to do, I just didn’t know how I was going to do it,” Hudson said. “I knew I wanted to play baseball and pitching became the best way to pursue that.
“You dream about it ever since you start playing baseball. How can you not? I’m just living in the present and not trying to get too far ahead or too far behind.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains