-- SAN FRANCISCO -- After 16 major league seasons encompassing 468 starts (counting the playoffs), Tim Hudson is revving up for the most daunting challenge of his career. It will test his resourcefulness and powers of concentration and require him to do something that's rarely achieved in the sporting world.
Against all odds, Hudson is trying to convince his pal and fellow Alabaman, Jake Peavy, to make the switch from "Roll Tide" to "War Eagle."
Hudson and Peavy have spent the past few months bonding with teammate Madison Bumgarner in a section of the San Francisco Giants' clubhouse they good-naturedly refer to as "redneck row." When they're not talking pitching strategy, the conversation inevitably turns to college football in their home state. Hudson is a former Auburn All-American and Peavy signed with the Tigers out of high school, but that's where their rooting interests diverge.
"I'm Auburn, through and through," Hudson said. "Jake's an Alabama fan, but he's not the typical fan who bleeds [crimson]. I'm trying to convert him. He signed with Auburn, so the door is cracked."
As one door opens, another is balanced on the precipice. Bumgarner pitched the Giants to a 7-1 victory over Kansas City in the World Series opener, and Peavy dropped a 7-2 decision to the Royals on Wednesday thanks to an implosion by the San Francisco bullpen. Now Hudson will try to get the "dynasty" narrative back on track and move the Giants a step closer to their third title in five years when he takes on Jeremy Guthrie in Game 3 on Friday night at AT&T Park.
October has been an emotional, whirlwind tour for Hudson, who crosses items off his baseball bucket list with every champagne celebration. In the National League Division Series, he threw seven stellar innings for a no-decision against Washington. When the Giants eliminated the Nationals three games to one, it ended a streak of six consecutive postseason rounds in which Hudson's team failed to advance. That tied him with Ellis Burks, Rafael Furcal, Ramon Hernandez and Joe Nathan for the longest futility streaks to begin a career in major league history.
Hudson pitched into the seventh inning while logging another no-decision against St. Louis in the NLCS, and the Giants outlasted the Cardinals to get him to his first World Series at age 39. Hudson is crafting the same twilight feel-good story that Adam Dunn might have written if only the Athletics hadn't been eliminated by Kansas City in the American League wild-card game.
With his quiet, determined approach, Hudson symbolizes what the Giants represent. Through three career stops and four All-Star Game appearances, he's emerged as a popular teammate and a respected opponent with an appreciation for the little things. Hudson, Peavy, Bumgarner and their fellow Giants starters are so passionate about the game and diligent in their work habits, they've blurred the invisible line that typically separates pitchers from position players.
"When guys are competitors like that, they're gonna be respected by everybody," Giants first baseman Brandon Belt said. "Pitchers usually hang out with pitchers, and it's the same for hitters. But the divide with this team isn't as large as with other teams I've been on. That's what makes it so special."
While Barry Zito stepped away from the game this season and Mark Mulder tore an Achilles tendon in his attempted comeback from the broadcast booth, Hudson carries on the legacy of Oakland's erstwhile "Big Three" by climbing baseball's career achievement lists. He leads active pitchers in wins (214) and ranks second to Mark Buehrle in innings pitched (3,003) and wins above replacement (56.9). Among active pitchers with at least 1,000 innings pitched, Hudson ranks a mere 60th with 6.04 strikeouts per nine innings, so he has not been a dominator in the classic sense.
Still, by the most old-fashioned and conventional of measures, Hudson has made his mark. When he went 9-13 this season, it broke a streak of 15 consecutive years with a winning record. That tied Hudson with Pedro Martinez and Cy Young for the second-longest streaks in history behind Grover Cleveland Alexander, who logged 19 straight winning seasons from 1911 to 1929.
Hudson's longevity is enhanced by his creativity and powers of reinvention. A decade ago, when he was pitching for the Athletics and then the Atlanta Braves, Hudson was content to throw sinkers 70 percent of the time, watch opposing hitters pound the ball into the ground and make a beeline for the dugout. This year, according to FanGraphs, he threw his sinking fastball 53.8 percent of the time and complemented it with a healthy mix of sliders, curveballs and splitters.
"As you get older, you have to put your ego aside and incorporate things into your game that you wouldn't do when you were 24 or 25," Hudson said. "It's about changing speeds and eye levels. I'm definitely a better pitcher now. With age you get smarter. You understand your limitations and your strengths."
It also takes fortitude and vision to know when not to quit. Hudson's 2013 season in Atlanta ended on a gruesome note when he fractured his right ankle in a collision with Eric Young Jr. of the New York Mets in late July. He signed a two-year, $23 million deal with the Giants in November, and he knew he made the right call from the day he arrived at spring training in Scottsdale, Arizona.
It helps to pitch in a constructive, mutually supportive environment, and the Giants are big on southern comfort. Matt Cain comes from Tennessee, and Ryan Vogelsong was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, before his family moved to Pennsylvania. He's the only San Francisco starter without a twang in his repertoire.
"Someone asked me about the whole 'redneck' thing and how that became a relationship," Vogelsong said. "That's what people see from the outside. Inside the clubhouse, it's all about the respect we have for how each guy goes about the game. When a teammate takes the mound, you want to know three things: Does he want to be here? Will he give you everything he's got, and has he done everything he needs to do to be ready come 7 o'clock or 7:15 every night? That's where the unity comes from here."
No Giants have a more natural bond than Peavy and Hudson. They first met years ago during a chance encounter at a restaurant in San Diego, but Peavy, who's six years younger, had been following Hudson since the mid-1990s. Hudson won the Golden Spikes Award as a pitcher-outfielder at Auburn, and he was an inspiration to Peavy as an undersized, right-handed sinkerballer with big league aspirations. Peavy briefly committed to Auburn, but the Padres convinced him to turn pro when they offered him a $100,000 bonus -- the equivalent of fourth-round money at the time.
Fifteen years later, Hudson and Peavy own ranches about an hour apart in Alabama. Their wives and kids have become friends. And they've proved that it is, indeed, possible for an Auburn die-hard and a Crimson Tide rooter to live in harmony when they're joined in a quest for a common goal.
"When I was getting ready to go to college, Timmy Hudson was a huge part of me wanting to go to Auburn," Peavy said. "He was a guy I looked up to and wanted to be like. I was even a little jealous when he got to pitch in Atlanta, so close to our home. It's funny to think that after all those years, we have a chance to share this and we're locker mates now. It's been a really cool friendship."
The friendship will continue this offseason when Hudson coaxes Peavy to an Auburn game or two and they discuss the relative merits of Nick Saban and Gus Malzahn over tailgating. It will be a whole lot cooler if they can attend the Iron Bowl, kick back and muse about what their world championship rings are going to look like.