Braves’ Hudson to make 6th Opening Day start, first since ‘08

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — After going with Kris Medlen to start the Wild Card game in October, the Braves will turn to their eldest pitcher, Tim Hudson, to start Opening Day.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez announced Thursday that Hudson would start April 1 against Philadelphia at Turner Field, his sixth Opening Day start and first since 2008.

“It’s an honor and a privilege to start Opening Day with any club, especially this one,” said Hudson, 37, who’ll be followed in the rotation by left-hander Paul Maholm, Medlen, lefty Mike Minor and Julio Teheran.

“Why not give it to the veteran guy?” Gonzalez said. “The Opening Day start is a special thing. Some people will downplay it, but it’s a special thing.”

Of moving Maholm up to the second spot and Medlen third, Gonzalez said, “It splits the left-handers, and if everything goes right you get your three guys facing the Phillies and a couple of series later they get a chance to face Washington.”

Hudson 1-0 with a 2.79 ERA in five Opening Day starts including two (2006 and 2008) for the Braves. In the 2008 opener at Washington, he allowed two runs and three hits in seven innings of a 3-2 loss. The Nationals did all the damage in the first inning and didn’t have a baserunner in Hudson’s remaining six innings.

Medlen went 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA in 12 starts after moving from the bullpen at the end of July, and the Braves have won a major league-record 23 consecutive regular-season games he’s started. That doesn’t include the Wild Card game, when Medlen was charged with three hits and five runs (two earned) in a loss.

“Huddy was pitching good baseball last year,” Gonzalez said. “We were thinking about going with Huddy or Medlen for that one-game playoff, but I think everyone in the world agreed with us to give Medlen the opportunity there. He was the hottest pitcher in baseball. And he pitched great in that game.”

Both pitchers have struggled this spring, but Hudson was sharp in his next-to-last spring start Thursday night, allowing six hits and no walks with five strikeouts in six scoreless innings against Washington. He previously had a 5.40 ERA, and Medlen has a 6.27 ERA in five starts.

Gonzalez said the rotation was essentially mapped out at the beginning of spring training.

“For this club there’s a lot of expectations coming into this year,” Hudson said, “and it’s nice to be able to get it started off with me on the mound and hopefully get us in the right colum with a W.”

Maholm will pitch the second game April 3 against the Phillies, after an off day built in the schedule in case of rainout. Medlen will start the series finale against the Phillies and Minor gets the April 5 series opener against the Cubs at Turner Field.

Gonzalez said either Hudson or Teheran would pitch the April 6 against the Cubs, based on whether Hudson needs an extra day of rest. If he starts April 6, Teheran would debut April 7 in the series finale against Chicago.

Either way, Hudson would start one of the first two games of the April 12-14 series at Washington. He’s 14-5 with a 2.65 ERA in 26 starts against the Nationals.

Hudson is three career wins from 200 and has a 105-65 record and 3.52 ERA in eight seasons with the Braves, including 16-7 with a 3.62 ERA in 2012. He had his third consecutive season with at least 16 wins despite missing most of spring training and the season’s first month recovering from lumbar-fusion back surgery.

The Alabama native and former Auburn star is entering the option year of his contract and will be a free agent after the season if he’s not re-signed. He’s said he hopes to pitch several more years and finish his career with the Braves, although he knows that’s not a given because of the young pitching they have in the organization.

Tommy Hanson was the Braves’ Opening Day starter in 2012, after three consecutive years of Derek Lowe starts.

“I didn’t realize it’s been that long since I started one,” said Hudson, who’s also had major elbow surgery since his last Opening Day start. “It does feel good to be able to be considered a guy that’s capable of pitching Opening Day. I’ve just got to hold up my end of the bargain and go out there and pitch like one.”

Hudson has a 186-102 record since the beginning of 2000, trailing only CC Sabathia (191-102) and Halladay (190-93) in wins during that period. He also leads baseball in fewest homers allowed per nine innings (0.71) since 2000 and ranks fourth in ERA at 3.43, behind Johan Santana (3.20), Roy Halladay (3.28) and Roy Oswalt (3.28).

Hudson’s ERA climbed from 2.83 in 2010 to 3.22 in 2011 and 3.62 in 2012. The sinkerballer again ranked among baseball’s leaders in percentage of groundballs, and his .361 opponents’ slugging percentage tied for third in the NL behind the Nationals’ Gio Gonzalez and the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw.

He missed a start in June for a bone spur in his left ankle, and Hudson thought at that point he would require surgery in the offseason. But after having a cortisone injection and easing back on his in-season running program for several weeks, he had only mild discomfort the rest of the season.

A 20-game winner (20-6) in his first full season in 2000, Hudson went 18-9 in 2011 and was the American League Cy Young Award runner-up. He hasn’t matched that wins total since, but has won 11 or more games in 13 of 14 seasons, all except his 2009 season in which he made only seven starts.

He’s won 13 or more games 10 times and 16 or more seven times including each of the past three seasons.

After missing part of 2008 and most of ’09 recovering from ligament-transplant elbow surgery, Hudson went 49-26 with a 3.19 ERA and .237 opponents’ batting average in 622-2/3 innings (95 starts) over the past three seasons.

He made $9 million each of those seasons under a contract extension he signed following the 2009 season, a deal that also included the ’13 option.