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The long road back for Daniel Hudson

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How long has Danial Hudson been away? So long, he had his first Tommy John surgery before it was cool... After two such surgeries and over 26 months, Hudson finally made it back to pitching in the major leagues. Let's look back over the highs and lows.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
In the beginning...

Coming off a very solid campaign the previous year, going 16-12 with a 3.49 ERA, Daniel Hudson entered 2012 looking to build on that success, and was great in spring training. But he struggled early in the season, allowing 12 earned runs over 18 innings in his first three starts, before he was forced on to the disabled list.. That was a right shoulder impingement: at the time, Kirk Gibson said an MRI "showed no structural damage," but it's a shame they didn't direct the MRI a little bit further down the arm while they were at it... Hudson missed 36 games as a result, and the first couple of starts back were better, allowing two runs in each, including eight innings at San Diego.

Then things fell apart again. His next three starts lasted 12.2 innings in total, with 23 hits and 16 earned runs. Hudson was baffled, unable to determine a reason for his sudden ineffectiveness. "I can't, man. I wish I could. If I could put a finger on it, I'd try to fix it." But worse was to come. His next appearance, in Atlanta, was 1.2 innings, as Hudson gave up seven hits and five runs before having to leave with elbow pain. Hudson said he it had been an increasing issue - this came as news to the team, Gibson calling it "alarming" - but he had been able to pitch through it.  "I've always had soreness in there. With my arm action I just kind of figured it came with the territory."

Hudson later went into more detail: "I've heard that it either happens over a long period of time or it just happens on one pitch, and it didn't happen on one pitch for me. It was a gradual thing where it just got worse and worse and worse and I just tried to keep going. Before Atlanta, it never felt like it did that night. If it had, I would have taken myself out sooner. In Atlanta, it got to the breaking point where I couldn't throw anything. It was one of those things where if I would have said something four starts earlier, I probably still would have had to have surgery. It wouldn't have made a difference."

The first surgery and rehab

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Scar selfie, by Daniel Hudson, via Twitter

Hudson returned to Phoenix for evaluation by team physician, Dr. Michael Lee, and on June 27, Hudson was diagnosed with a 100% tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Originally, the plan was to get this confirmed by the top name in the field, Dr. James Andrews, but he was unavailable (due to neck surgery, of all things)  However, Hudson saw Dr. Lewis Yocum on the 29th, and the second opinion was no better than the first, with Tommy John surgery the only solution. Dr. Yocum carried out the necessary operation on July 9, ending Hudson's season and beginning the rehab, estimated at 12 months.

The Tweetcovery was a good deal less. :) Through the rest of the year, Daniel kept up updated with the highs and lows of his enforced absence [along with the equally important dog pics, and his haunted house!]

By December, he was playing catch at over 100 feet. Hudson was worried before throwing for the first time. "I was obviously wondering, 'Is it ready to go?' The first one was kind of hesitant and then it's like, 'I know how to do this.' It's like getting up and riding a bike again. We started slow, we started throwing a tennis ball for the first week just to get that motion back, and that was actually more difficult than throwing a baseball because it was so light. I had no idea where that tennis ball was going. The next week we were just tossing a baseball back and forth -- I don't think it was even 30 feet. And then we just progressed it from there like 15 or 20 feet every week."

When spring training got underway in February, it was a test of Hudson's patience. "It's just a boring spring so far watching everyone do their stuff. The offseason was much easier because I didn't have to come to the field and watch everyone else play baseball while I can't." He added, "Knowing that we’re starting camp and that I’m going to be out there half-days with the guys and not throwing. Just knowing that this was coming up was kind of in my mind that this was going to be the worst spring ever."

But progress, while slow, was steady and Hudson took to the mound again for the first time since his surgery, on March 26, 2013, throwing 30 pitches at Salt River Fields. "It felt good," he said. "Surprisingly good. It felt like there was a little bit of life to it. I threw a lot of strikes, which was good, as well, and definitely surprising. I wasn’t expecting anywhere near what I did. It was a step in the right direction... I might have been a little tentative at first, but once I got that feeling back in me, I just kind of took it and ran with it." By the end of May, Hudson was up to throwing over 70 pitches in an extended spring training game, and was assigned to Double-A Mobile for a rehab assignment.

Then, disaster struck again.

Once more, with feeling...

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It was a Tuesday in Jacksonville when Hudson returned to the mound in a competitive game. The first inning went smoothly, retiring the side in order. The second, he allowed a run on two hits and a walk, but he felt stiffness in the repaired elbow and was lifted. Two days later, he met once again with Dr. Lee and the prognosis was devastating. Hudson had re-torn the ACL, a couple of centimeters from where it had fused to the bone and could either retire, or try a second Tommy John procedure. While the list is lengthy, of pitchers who have made successful recoveries from one TJ, the list of double-dippers is a great deal shorter. Was another 12-18 months of rehab worth it?

A hint came in this Tweet from Daniel that Thursday:

And so it proved, with Hudson opting to give surgery another chance. It wasn't an easy decision. "I'd say for a good couple hours after I got the news I was 50-50, just because I didn't know if I could do it again mentally. It's another 12 months of watching baseball. I didn't even want to see anybody that day, I just sat in my house and tried to make sense of it. It was a tough few hours but people have it way worse than me, so I figured if I didn't try, I couldn't look myself in a mirror five years from now. I've lived a pretty blessed life. I figured I owed it to myself and everyone else to try again."

There was some question as to whether Hudson had come back too early, but both he and the team denied that was a factor. Said Daniel, "I felt great, that's why it was so hard to explain. I hadn't had a setback so there is just no way to tell, nothing was done wrong rehab-wise or surgery, it just wasn't strong enough in the end." Gibson concurred: "If he was a reliever he'd have been back a long time ago. So we were just getting him built up. I'm not going to sit up here and talk about why it happened or whether it shouldn't have happened. Nobody really knows that. Everything was done properly by all parties and certainly he did his job. It just didn't work out."

After the first surgery, Hudson adjusted his delivery in an effort to put less strain on the elbow. However, he didn't stick with it, and speaking earlier this week, suggested that might have played into the re-injury. "I used to have a lot of lag in my arm and that would help with my deception and stuff, but it really wasn't good for my elbow - obviously, two surgeries later. It's still a work in progress." Whatever the cause, on June 18, a second operation took place, by Dr. James Andrews this time. There were no issues. Hudson's wife Sara afterward Tweeting the picture above, saying, "Doc said all went great! He's prob gonna kill me when he wakes up but oh well #whatsnottolove"

The second rehab

As I noted at the time, a second TJ is a crap-shoot. But it wasn't just that which made Daniel such a rare case, it was having them so close together. I found 54 "double TJers:", but only five pitchers to have gone under the knife in around the same time-span as Hudson: Brian Anderson, Dave Eiland. Denny Stark, Matt Beech and Mike Lincoln. So we're largely in uncharted territory, especially since the predecessors have individual quirks, e.g. Stark needed a second TJ so soon because his body rejected the first one, Anderson also had bone chips and a flexor tendon tear. And none of the other are post-2006; it's a surgery that has advanced and improved a lot in recent years.

The stitches came out July 1, and understandably, it seemed Hudson was taking things more gingerly the second time around. Even before he could begin playing catch, in September he said, "I’m pretty sure we will probably be even more careful in terms of handling different sorenesses a little more cautiously." But there was also another issue to be handled: his status with the team. Especially after contract negotiations seemed to be happening in late November, it was a shock to see on the evening of December 2 - the same day Hudson played catch for the first time since surgery #2 - that the Diamondbacks opted not to offer Daniel a contract, making him a free-agent.

"I don’t want to get into too many specifics of what each side wanted to give or was asking for. But I just wanted to be compensated fairly. I know I won’t have pitched for two years this coming June, but I wanted to be compensated for what I’ve done in my career before that. I’m a guy coming off two Tommy John surgeries; I understand their side of it. We’re still talking. It’s not like there’s any animosity because the deadline came and went. I still want to stay here, still enjoy the organization and still want to be here the rest of my career, if that’s possible."
-- Daniel Hudson

Even though I knew this was a move designed to free up a 40-man roster spot, etc. and Hudson outwardly never seemed too concerned (Tweeting after the non-tender, "My heart is still pumping Sedona Red. Not closing any books. Patience is key!"), it was still a nervous couple of weeks. But eventually, it was announced on December 13 that he had signed a minor-league contract with Arizona. Phew. That out of the way, we now return to your regularly scheduled rehabilitation... though with another, more pleasant distraction in January, when Daniel and Sara announced they were expecting their first child in July.

Daniel acknowledged the psychological aspect was harder this time:  "I'm sure that thought's going to be in my mind: what's different this time and is it going to happen again? So it's just going to be something I have to work myself through." But another milestone was reached March 5, when Hudson threw on flat ground for the first time, delivering 15 pitches, all fastballs. However, a second consecutive spring training on the sidelines was no more fun than the first: "It’s supposed to be fun with baseball starting back up again but not in my situation. There are days that are heavier throwing days where I’m not even on the field with [my teammates]."

It had also become clear he would, at least initially, be working as a reliever. In April, Gibson said of Hudson having a spot in the rotation, "I think we would not do that. It probably would be more in the bullpen." By the following month, Hudson was throwing up to 30 pitches off a mound, mixing in sliders, and was apparently content to have given up starting. "I don't even know if it's smart to try again and see if my arm can take it. I don't want to build back up, get to 100 pitches and the same thing happens again. I can't do this again. It's too hard."

Late in June, Hudson faced a live hitter, in the shape of injured teammate Mark Trumbo in a session at Chase Field. Afterward, he said, "It's the first time in a year somebody's tried to actually hit the ball off me so it felt good, good to get out there and get some juices going. I really wasn't hoping for much except for no pain so it was good and I don't have any pain so that's good." Trumbo seemed impressed too: "He let it loose and his stuff was really, really sharp. It jumped out of his hand. I hadn't seen him before. I definitely went away with a lot of appreciation for the stuff that he's got."

The final stretch

On August 5, 2014, Hudson returned to competitive baseball, appearing in the Arizona Rookie League. Given it was at this point after his first surgery that his repaired elbow gave out, this had to have been a major mental hurdle. Reaching 93 mph, He allowed a run on two hits, although that was likely the most irrelevant line in his pitching career. "Once I got there on the mound and started warming up a little bit, I just told myself, 'You know, you're fine. Whatever happens, happens. Just go out there and do what you know how to do... Just to get back out there in a competitive game was a lot of fun, and I definitely missed it a lot."

Three further AZL outings followed, then two more with Triple-A Reno, each time throwing an inning, each time putting up a zero. Hudson was activated from the disabled list when rosters expanded on Monday. It was 796 days after he had been placed on the DL, which was June 27, 2012.

The only thing left was to get into a major-league game, and after sitting out the first two game, it happened in the eighth inning last night. I think you could tell there were butterflies and adrenalin as Hudson spiked the first pitch short. But the next was a strike, and from then on, it was almost as if he had never been away, throwing what looked like a very easy 95 mph, and retiring the Padres 1-2-3. It was awesome. In a season which, let's be honest, has seen disappointment at almost every turn, the return of Daniel Hudson to the majors is perhaps the best story of the year for the Diamondbacks.