(Photo: Dakota Hudson) Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Diamond Dog Ace Gets State's Series Off to Stronger Starts

After a string of excellent outings one would’ve thought Dakota Hudson was a finished product. Wrong. In lead-up to a pivotal game for both his team and himself, Hudson adjusted what was already working.

“I’ve been trying to get my arm to be kind of more efficient. We shortened up a little bit with my stroke, and it felt a lot better.”

Hudson himself pitched even better. Eight days after beating Georgia for his first SEC win of the junior season, he dominated Ole Miss for a complete-game victory. It was also Hudson’s first full-route performance at Mississippi State.

But, it was only the latest example of why this junior righthander has become lead Dog at Dudy Noble Field. Or on the road for that matter. “Every time he steps on the mound our kids think we’re going to win,” Coach John Cohen said.

With good reason. Even when Hudson (4-1, 0.92 era) doesn’t win he puts the club in position for success. Mississippi State is 5-2 so far in his starts, and even in the setbacks Hudson has done his part. Such as the lone loss, by a 2-1 final at UCLA when Hudson went 7.0 innings with only one earned run allowed.

Since then he has become a true ace. Starting with a tight win over Oregon, then a grueling nine innings at Vanderbilt, Hudson has been little short of brilliant. Not that he claims the credit.

“I’m just going out and competing. I’ve got really good defense behind me so I kind of settle in with my stuff knowing they’ve got my back. Every game so far I’ve had some really great plays behind me. It makes me comfortable on the mound.”

Yeah, but that works both ways. Bulldog defenders are quite comfortable when #25 is on the hill. “What he’s done this year is insane,” freshman OF Jake Mangum said.

More like Hudson is driving opponents crazy this year. He’s always had raw velocity, and now under Coach Wes Johnson’s tutelage Hudson has refined it. The last two home weekends the stadium gun has clocked his fastballs consistently in the mid-90s and peaking above 97 at times.

Ole Miss certainly felt the heat. Hudson burned through the complete nine innings with eleven strikeouts against just four hits in a 3-1 win…and again that run was not earned. More impressive to the coach was “He doesn’t walk anybody. And he forces a ton of early contact.”

That was a result of the game-week tweaking, Hudson said. Impressive as the fast stuff can be, it was how Hudson bent other pitches that got lots of his easy outs.

“I really focused on getting my breaking ball in the zone, I felt that kind of opened it up and helped me shut down the righties.”

Yet here’s the thing: this was not a surprise weapon. There were veteran Rebels who had seen Hudson throw breakers. “I played with (Colby) Bortles and (Errol) Robinson this summer so they kind of knew what I had.

“But I felt with them having a lot of righties that could put the bat on the ball with a little power, I needed an extra weapon to get through the week.”

It worked. Even with a narrow two-run lead and his pitch count getting to triple-digits, Hudson was not leaving the finish to anyone else. “They’d have had to pry the ball out of my hand,” he grinned. Those familiar with how Hudson’s 2015 ended, in an extra-inning loss in Oxford, could understand why. Still leaving Hudson in was more than emotion.

Cohen was so impressed, he claimed Hudson’s outing had to rank among the top-ten ever on a Dudy Noble Field Friday. “It was special.”

“When he’s doing that he’s as good as anybody out there,” Cohen said. “If he can get in rhythm early he can be a dominating pitcher.”

There’s a point. Coming into the junior season Hudson was sure of a rotation job. The trick for him was making those starts better ones. His February and March line-scores showed why. “I’ve had a few scored in the first inning,” Hudson agreed. “It’s being able to go back out there and competing.”

Now here he is competing complete-games. If not for a mid-game defensive lapse Hudson might have got his first full-route win at Vanderbilt. He had to retire after 9.0 full frames and 126 pitches but the bullpen—and offense—came through for a 12-inning win to open SEC season.

A week later Hudson went 7.0 with eight hits but only a run—again, un-earned—to take care of Georgia on 96 pitches. He might have gone more but it was a Thursday start so State played it safe with the ace. It left him primed for Ole Miss, and eager to finish something he’d started at last.

“That was the third time I’ve been out in the eighth and ninth,” Hudson said. “Just the first time was at the Cape (Cod League).” Indeed it was last summer in the nation’s premier summer baseball circuit that Hudson made his true transition from thrower to pitcher. Cohen talks about getting a call from a pro club’s cross-checker asking if Hudson was suddenly throwing a cut-fastball along with the full-speeder. The coach was more concerned though with finding maturity than stuff, which Hudson did. “When you go off in the summer you can find yourself,” Cohen said.

Now how does Hudson see the difference?

“Night and day, almost,” Hudson said. “Now I’m able to get that experience and work and do what I can to get further in ball games. It was huge to have that.”

Having a real ace is huge for Mississippi State. Plus, Hudson’s game-one work dovetails nicely with what his classmate and fellow rightsider Austin Sexton (3-1, 2.98) can do in the second game with a different look and different stuff to throw at orders. Not that Sexton needs too much help these days, he’s becoming an ace in his own right and posted his own complete-game win over Ole Miss.

Sure, there are almost assuredly going to be stumbles and struggles for both high-cards grinding through this long SEC season. The next two weekends offer the toughest tests on the schedule, if the rankings mean anything. Upcoming opponent Florida is back atop the national polls…having swept aside a Texas A&M team which held it for a week. The Aggies come to campus for the following series.

Yet at this point, when Hudson and Sexton step on the hill, they plan on sticking around. All game long. This is a gameplan needing no tweaking.

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