SAN FRANCISCO — Even in his late 30s and a year removed from a devastating ankle injury that cut short his 2013 season in Atlanta, Tim Hudson pictured himself pitching at a high level again.
That’s the very reason he took the leap to move back cross country and join the San Francisco Giants, leaving his Georgia roots last fall and returning to his Bay Area baseball beginnings.
Now, the veteran right-hander is headed to the NL Championship Series in the deepest playoff run of his 16 major league seasons.
San Francisco makes its third NLCS appearance in five years when it opens Saturday at St. Louis, playing its fourth in a row.
Hudson is likely to pitch Game 3 of the best-of-seven series next Tuesday at AT&T Park.
“I’m toward the end of my career here and it’s the first time I’ve been past the first round,” Hudson said Wednesday. “I don’t think there’s going to be anybody on the field that’s going to be more emotionally involved than I am for the next series, or two series.”
Ryan Vogelsong wanted to pitch Hudson into the next round. Tim Lincecum enjoyed the Division Series celebration that much more knowing what it meant to the guy who shares his first name. Manager Bruce Bochy got a thrill watching Hudson add another accomplishment.
“If you’re not walking in his shoes, to take the magnitude of how many years he’s played in this league and to have never been to this point, I can’t really describe it for him,” right fielder Hunter Pence said. “If I think in my imagination, I think of 17 years, think of where you were 17 years ago, imagine reaching a milestone you’ve never reached before. I think any player will say there’s no accomplishment greater than what you do as a team in the postseason.”
Pitching deep into October with a regular contender is something Hudson mentioned right away when he finalized his $23 million, two-year contract last November.
The Giants needed Hudson to fill a hole with an experienced starter. Hudson needed the Giants to join a winner as he worked himself back.
“It’s equally as gratifying to be part of this as it is to watch a guy get further into the playoffs, just because he’s so excited he acts like a kid at times,” Lincecum said. “You just see how much it means to them and it resonates with you a little bit more, because you’re not just playing for yourself. You want to win and get further for other guys.”
Hudson was 8-7 with a 3.97 ERA in 21 starts for the Braves before getting hurt and undergoing surgery for a broken right ankle. Hudson’s season ended on July 24, 2013, in New York when the Mets’ Eric Young Jr. inadvertently stepped on the back of his lower right leg while Hudson covered first base.
“Coming back from that injury was a tough deal. I’m glad I’m on a winner,” Hudson said. “It would have been tough if I had wanted to extend my career after that injury and I’m making plans for vacation in July or August.”
His two daughters were born in the Bay Area, where Hudson began his career with the Oakland Athletics in 1999 and won a career-best 20 games the following year.
It sure helped San Francisco had captured two of the previous three World Series titles, in 2010 and 2012.
This time, the Giants got past the 96-win Nationals, who had the best record in the National League before San Francisco won the best-of-five series in four games.
While the 39-year-old Hudson posted his first losing record this year at 9-13, he became an All-Star for the fourth time and returned from the injury to make 31 starts over 189.1 innings.
“It means the world when you watch Tim Hudson, 15, 16 years in who has never advanced past the first round, and you realize how precious these opportunities are,” Jake Peavy said.
Hudson bonded with fellow Southern boy Madison Bumgarner, the 18-game winner likely to get the ball for Saturday’s opener. And so many others have fed off his energy and wit.
“Even though I battled some injuries throughout my career, I’ve never doubted my competitive fire. I’ve always wanted to go out and compete and win,” Hudson said. That’s why I still play. That’s why I came here. God works in crazy ways, and this could be something special for us.”