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Out of Shadows, Into the Fire

Stanford gets big lift in College World Series from unheralded Hudgins, who relishes pressure of pitching in championship series.

June 21, 2003|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

OMAHA — If Stanford is to win its third College World Series championship, John Hudgins figures to be on the mound at some point this weekend. He has been instrumental in getting the Cardinal to this position.

Hudgins will not start in tonight's opening game of the best-of-three championship series against Rice, having pitched a complete game Wednesday against Cal State Fullerton. And if the format were the same as last year, when the title was decided by a single game, the junior from Mission Viejo High wouldn't have the chance to make a difference.

Naturally he prefers this format, as does almost everyone else affiliated with college baseball.

"I'd like the opportunity to pitch in the championship series," Hudgins said. "Everybody in college baseball is excited about it. It'll show you who the best team is, not who has the best game. It's how it should be played."

A third-round pick of the Texas Rangers earlier this month, Hudgins has played a starring role in this tournament. He has blossomed on the stages of Rosenblatt Stadium and national television after having done most of his work this season outside the spotlight.

Others have pitched as well but no pitcher has been as essential to his team's success. Hudgins opened the CWS with an 84-pitch gem, allowing two hits in eight innings of the Cardinal's 8-0 victory over South Carolina.

His start against the Titans, however, was his defining work. Pitching on four days' rest in an elimination game, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound right-hander hung tough after a rough start and went the distance, throwing 135 pitches in a 5-3 victory that kept the Cardinal alive.

Back on equal footing, Stanford (50-16) knocked Fullerton out Thursday night, winning, 7-5, on Danny Putnam's 10th-inning home run. Without Hudgins' efforts, the Cardinal might not have had the opportunity to play for its third national title.

"I really enjoy that pressure situation," he said. "It brings out the best in me. If we're going to be in that spot as a team, I want to be the one on the hill."

Putnam, a sophomore left fielder, appreciates the way his pitcher manages his game. The best thing Hudgins does, he says, is to not waste pitches, which keeps the seven fielders behind him alert and into the game.

Hudgins has walked only 32 batters in 158 1/3 innings, an average of 1.8 for nine innings. For the year, he is 13-3 with a 2.96 earned-run average and eight complete games, three in postseason play.

"He's been consistent all year, whether he's had his good stuff or not," Putnam said. "He's not going to hit a lot of guys or walk a lot of guys. You know you're going to see the same thing from him every day. He's not erratic in any way."

Rice left fielder Chris Kolkhorst came away impressed after watching Hudgins against UCLA when the Owls were on the West Coast.

"He threw a lot of strikes," Kolkhorst said. "When you can throw three pitches for strikes, you're going to get a lot of hitters out. He works quickly, which is fun to watch and probably fun to play behind.

"Pitching is all about messing with the hitter's timing. If he can throw three pitches over the plate, it's going to affect the hitter. It definitely makes hitting a lot harder."

What makes Hudgins successful doesn't attract a lot of attention either. With a fastball that tops out at 88 to 90 mph, he keeps batters guessing with his command of a curveball and changeup. But the talk Friday focused on Rice's power-pitching duo of Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend, two big right-handers who can blow away hitters with blazing fastballs or make them look silly with sharp-breaking curves.

Being overlooked isn't anything new for Hudgins. Last year, he was 10-1 with a 4.71 ERA but pitched in the shadow of first-round draft pick Jeremy Guthrie. And he is part of a program that has produced major league pitchers Mike Mussina, Jack McDowell and Rick Helling.

"I think there's been some vindication with coming here and people recognizing what I've done this year," Hudgins said. "I don't think I've been overlooked, now that I have all my cards on the table. Those guys are so amazing. I'm probably not as eye-opening in the box scores."

Stanford catcher Ryan Garko said he was happy to see the contributions of his battery mate finally getting noticed.

"He has done the same things that the Rice guys have done this year," Garko said. "He doesn't roll out there looking like Roger Clemens but his stuff is as good as anybody's in the country."

Rice Coach Wayne Graham is fully expecting to see Hudgins.

"For certain, if it goes to three games," Graham said. "If we win the first game, we'd probably see him in some role in the second."

That's just how Hudgins wants it.

"I said at the beginning of this thing that I wanted to throw the first pitch, and I want to throw the last one," he said. "That would be the perfect scenario."

*

College World Series

at Rosenblatt Stadium, Omaha

Best-of-three championship series; all times Pacific

* Today: Stanford (50-16) vs. Rice (56-11), 4 p.m.

* Sunday: Stanford vs. Rice, 11:30 a.m.

* Monday: Stanford vs. Rice, 4 p.m., if necessary

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