Cardinals right-hander John Lackey, sitting in the interview room at AT&T Park on Monday afternoon: “I throw a little bit of everything nowadays. If it feels good, I invent stuff on the mound.”
Giants right-hander Tim Hudson, seated in the same place about half an hour later: “Now, there’s been times where I’ve tried to make up pitches to try to get guys out.”
Indeed, both halves of Tuesday’s starting pitching matchup in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series have been around a while. Lackey, 35, is no longer the pitcher who got by mostly with a fastball and a big curve in his early years in the majors; Hudson, 39, is far removed from his days of burying hitters with 95-mph sinkers.
But baseball is often described as a game of adjustments – when the opposition gets wise to your act, throw a changeup – and both Lackey and Hudson have persevered into the latter stages of long major-league careers that have not gone unrecognized by their peers in this series.
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“Nothing but respect for Huddy,” Lackey said Monday. “I remember facing him as a young pitcher in Oakland, going against him, and always respect the way he competed and the way he just went about his business. … Threw a lot of strikes and never backed down.”
Giants starter Jake Peavy, who became fast friends with Lackey when they played together in Boston last season, told the San Jose Mercury News before this series that Lackey is “as proven a big-game pitcher as anybody we have in the game today, hands down. We’ll have our work cut out for us when we face him, I can promise you that.”
Peavy and Lackey won a World Series together with the Red Sox, and that’s one area in which the résumés of Hudson and Lackey diverge. Hudson is into the LCS for the first time in his 16-year career, after six previous postseason trips ended in the division series. Lackey reached his first World Series in 2002 – as a 23-year-old rookie with the Angels.
Lackey’s team at the time, of course, beat the Giants in seven games. Lackey made three appearances in that World Series – including one start at AT&T Park, in which he allowed three hits in five innings and got a no-decision in a Game 4 that the Giants won 4-3.
“Honestly, the main thing I remember about that was I got a hit here,” Lackey said with a grin. “Got my first hit.”
It’s true: In his first at-bat, Lackey singled to right off Giants left-hander Kirk Rueter.
Lackey also was reminded Monday that the first four times he faced Barry Bonds in that Series, he issued Bonds intentional walks.
“Wouldn’t you?” Lackey said.
Twelve years later, the Giants’ scratch-and-claw offense looks a little different.
“No offense to anybody in their lineup,” Lackey said, “but they don’t got Barry Bonds.”
“They have got a really good lineup,” he added. “It’s a deep lineup. It’s more of an American League-style lineup, which I’m pretty well accustomed to.”
Lackey is the first to admit he’s different, too, saying: “I was pretty much a two-pitch pitcher back then.”
According to pitch data on the website FanGraphs, a younger Lackey relied almost solely on his fastball and curveball, throwing the fastball 73.2 percent of the time and the curve 24.7 percent in his rookie season. This year, he still threw the fastball for 63.6 percent of his pitches but mixed in a slider (23.8), curve (9.9) and little-used changeup.
Hudson has evolved as well, adjusting to a dip in average fastball velocity from 91.5 mph in 2002 to 89 mph this season by putting a greater emphasis on movement and deception. Earlier in his first season with the Giants, he summed up his approach to pitching these days as: “You try to make the balls look like strikes, and make the strikes look like balls.”
“I wish I still had that 95-(mph) sinker, but I don’t,” Hudson said Monday. “But I’m OK with my 90, 91 sinker and locating it better and mixing in some other changeups, cutters and curveballs behind it.
“Might not be nearly as much power as there was back in ’99, but I feel like I have much better game plans nowadays.”
He’ll need one for a Cardinals lineup whose left-handed hitters pounded four home runs off Giants right-handed pitching in a 5-4 win in Game 2. He’ll also have to contend with right-handed slugger Matt Holliday, who owns a lifetime .346 average against Hudson (9 for 26).
While it’s unlikely to rattle the 39-year-old, Hudson will be pitching on a championship series stage unknown to him for his first 15 major-league seasons.
If he does have to invent something on the mound today, it won’t be motivation.
“I try to talk to some of the young guys about, ‘Don’t take these opportunities for granted, because next thing you know you’ll blink your eyes and you’ll be 16 years in the league and never got past the first round,’” Hudson said Monday.
“It’s exciting for me to finally be here.”