San Francisco Giants

Zito-Hudson matchup fades quickly but remains heavy on nostalgia

A’s pitcher Barry Zito waves to fans as he leaves the game against the Giants in the third inning of a baseball game Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, in Oakland.
A’s pitcher Barry Zito waves to fans as he leaves the game against the Giants in the third inning of a baseball game Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, in Oakland. The Associated Press

Before Jarrett Parker stole the spotlight, Saturday afternoon at Coliseum was supposed to be a celebration of Tim Hudson and Barry Zito, with both returning to make one more start in the city where their storied careers began.

“I was coming in today thinking it was going to be a 1-0 Giants win,” Hudson said. “But that was not the case.”

No, it was not. The Giants did win – in a wild 14-10 affair, which concluded long after the veneer of nostalgia accompanying the Hudson-Zito matchup had worn off and both pitchers had been relegated to the role of spectator. Both found themselves on the bench in the third inning, an abrupt ending to an afternoon that had been built up on storybook qualities.

Yet in the Hudson-Zito narrative, the result Saturday was always going to be secondary. Zito had not pitched more than an inning since August 6, and probably wasn’t going to throw more than 50 pitches. Hudson was making his fourth start since July for a Giants team speeding toward official postseason elimination. Pitchers typically say they pay no attention to the opposing team’s starter – especially in the American League, where they don’t face each other from the batter’s box. But it was understood that Saturday would be different.

And on a purely sentimental level, it delivered. A sold-out Coliseum seized every chance it got to cheer both Hudson and Zito, who spent five successful seasons as teammates in Oakland from 2000-04. Zito opened his first start in an A’s uniform since 2006 with an 85 mph fastball for a strike. When Hudson took the mound in the bottom of the inning, the A’s played “Sweet Home Alabama” as entrance music – a rarity for a visitor.

In the teams’ respective clubhouses, the recognition started earlier than that. The Giants’ clubhouse Saturday morning was a sea of “Hudson 17” T-shirts, with most players and coaches honoring the 40-year-old right-hander, who intends to retire after this season.

“I walked in and it was a good-looking group,” Hudson said, grinning. “These guys, man, the last week or so they’ve really gone out of their way to make things pretty special in my last couple weeks here. Great teammates, great friends.”

Several hours later, when the A’s took the field for first pitch, their entire team wore their pant legs rolled up to show high socks, in the fashion of Zito.

“I saw when I was warming up in the bullpen, I turned around and the whole bullpen, 15 guys, all had their socks up,” Zito said. “Then I came in the dugout and I was just, ‘That’s so awesome.’ 

Yet for all the build-up to the game since the pitching matchup was announced late last week, the actual event was over quickly. Hudson cruised through the first inning on eight pitches, but he unraveled in the second as his command disappeared. He walked three, hit two batters, allowed three runs without a hit and was pulled midway through an at-bat to Josh Reddick, after starting him 2-0.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy said it was one of the most difficult decisions he has ever made in a game.

“But when he missed those two pitches, I just said I’ve got to protect him,” Bochy said. “He was just so out of sync. I didn’t know if his hip was bothering him – he didn’t say anything, but I’ve never seen him that much out of sync. He might have been caught in the moment, I’m sure today was an emotional day for him. But at that point, just felt like I had to protect him.”

Hudson said he understood completely. He said he “couldn’t quite get the handle of it as far as my command,” and that it was “weird” his renowned control should abandon him so entirely. He threw just five of 26 pitches in the second inning for strikes, but he said he wasn’t dealing with any discomfort out of the ordinary.

“I just couldn’t find the strike zone,” Hudson said.

Scattered boos came down as Bochy came out to lift Hudson, but they quickly turned to cheers as Hudson left the mound. He walked slowly with his head lowered, only giving a quick wave as he entered the dugout. But after the half-inning, the A’s PA announcer asked fans to once more acknowledge Hudson. This time, he came out of the dugout to a roar of applause, waved to the crowd and tapped his chest above his heart.

“It was a weird situation,” Hudson said. “Obviously I just came out of the game, didn’t do too well. But there comes times in this game the moments are a little bigger than the games … Classy moment for the fans here, and something that Zito and I both, I’m sure, will appreciate forever.”

Zito received his own ovation when he left the mound shortly thereafter. It at first looked unlikely Zito would outlast his counterpart, as the Giants jumped on him for two runs in both the first and second innings. A’s manager Bob Melvin sent Zito back out to start the third, explaining he wanted to remove Zito in the middle of an inning so the fans could recognize him, and Zito walked Buster Posey for his final hitter.

Zito, too, was recognized between innings on the PA system, and he doffed his hat to the crowd. Afterward, he sounded conflicted talking to reporters about the experience.

“It was awesome,” Zito said. “It’s definitely hard to enjoy it. A lot of my friends were telling me coming into this to soak it up, but it’s hard to be a fan and also compete.

“It was definitely great to be a part of it, and I enjoyed walking out there and getting the warm reception from the fans. Seeing how they responded to Huddy was awesome. But you have to keep a mindset, too. Tomorrow will be enjoyable, absolutely. But today was pretty incredible.”

While it’s unlikely Zito will get another start for the A’s, he said he “would absolutely love” to pitch again this season. Hudson expressed a similar desire. He remains on turn for the finale in the Giants’ upcoming series against the Dodgers. Bochy, though, was non-committal when asked if Hudson will make that start, saying: “I’ll talk to Huddy.”

It would give Hudson, the majors’ active career wins leader at 222, one more chance to finish his 17-season career on a high note – and one more start in front of a home crowd at AT&T Park.

“It’s something I’d like,” Hudson said. “Today didn’t go how I wanted.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee