WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 17: Pitcher Marco Estrada #41 of the Milwaukee Brewers delivers to a Washington Nationals batter during the third inning of the second game of a doubleheader at Nationals Park on April 17, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Despite missing the early weeks of the season while recovering from back surgery (a lumbar spine fusion), Tim Hudson has once again returned to his "workhorse" reputation, remaining the stalwart of a Braves rotation that's suffered its share of injuries and inconsistancies.
At 37, Hudson is a rare player who's missed few games and found continued success as he ages. Only one player - Roy Halladay - has pitched more 220-inning seasons that Hudson in the past 12 years. Now that he's recovered from the back pain that he says bothered him, but didn't slow him down last season (he finished with 16 wins and a 3.22 ERA) he says he feels he could pitch a few more seasons. The Braves hold a club option for 2013.
What's allowed Hudson to excel has been the extreme amount of movement he's able to put on a variety of pitches. He's not blowing batters away with speed - never has - but he does continue to baffle them with a variety of sliders, sinkers and changeups.
That being said, he is hittable. Over the past ten games, he pitched just one where the opposing team had less than four hits. His walk to strikeout ratio isn't great. But teams aren't putting runs on the board, despite Hudson putting them on base. He's 7-1 over his last ten game stretch and 14-5 on the season with a 3.59 ERA.
If the back pain stays at bay and the ball continues to move, Hudson could conceivably pitch into his 40s, which would accumulate him more than 3,000 innings and certainly mean that he should at least be discussed in terms of the Hall of Fame.
For Estrada, the focus has to be on pitching more effectively so he can go deeper into ballgames. In 19 starts this season, Marco has pitched more than six innings just four times. Even in his second win against Chicago, he lasted just give innings and it took 92 pitches to get there. It took him 97 pitches to get through five innings against Miami on Thursday.
Miami's loss was partly blamed on Estrada "losing track of time" and having to rush through his pre-game routine prior to taking the mound. One might start to worry about Estrada's focus, but the numbers show he's been much sharper over the last few weeks than he was to start the season.
He allowed three runs or less in five of his last eight starts, hasn't walked more than three in any of those eight starts and over the last four games has racked up 32 strikeouts (he had just 53 on the season).
It will be interesting to see if the pressure of a big game and facing an established, double-digit win pitcher has any effect on Marco or whether he can continue to showcase his command.
The dichotomy between the movement of Hudson and the command of Estrada could be an interesting sub-plot to tonight's game. Both pitchers give up hits, but both have been stingy with allowing runs. Factors outside of pitching could have a big impact on tonight's game.