Unlike other notable threesomes (Tinker, Evers and Chance; Jordan, Pippen and Rodman; Moe, Larry and Curly, to name a few), there is no order to the trio of Oakland A's aces that slides off the tongue naturally. In fact, when members of the Oakland organization discuss pitchers Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, they seem consciously not to mention them in the same sequence twice. If you hear Zito, Mulder, Hudson first, you are sure to hear Mulder, Hudson, Zito or some other permutation next. "It must be because they're so equal," says third baseman Eric Chavez. "It's like a circle. Anyplace you want to start is just as good as anyplace else."
Round and round the circle goes. Although they are but three of Oakland's five starters, Mulder, Hudson and Zito are in many ways a rotation unto themselves. No matter in what order they appear, they subject hitters to a full range of pitching styles and temperaments. Batters have to step in against the demonstrative Zito, a lefthander working up in the strike zone with his roller coaster of a curveball; the intense Hudson, a righthander whose split-fingered fastball is diving at the dirt; and the unflappable Mulder, a lefty with downward movement on his pitches more similar to Hudson's.
During the three years they have been in Oakland together, Hudson, 27, Mulder, 25, and Zito, 24, have a combined .693 winning percentage (149-66). And over that span there have been only 14 instances in which two of them lost in back-to-back games, and only two occasions when they combined to lose three in a row. Individually, their accomplishments are equally impressive. They've all had a 20-win season. Mulder and Zito won the 2001 and '02 American League Cy Young Awards, respectively. Hudson has the most career wins (64), Mulder has the most lifetime shutouts (five), and Zito has the lowest career ERA (3.04). Hudson (7.03) and Zito (7.80) average more strikeouts per nine innings than Mulder (6.10); however, with the fewest walks per nine innings (2.67), Mulder has exhibited the best control.
Each has been Oakland's best pitcher in one of the last three years. The idea that all of them could have a dominant season in the same year is a most daunting prospect. And it could happen in 2003. If it does, the A's—who have the capable duo of Ted Lilly and John Halama at the back end of their rotation—would be the team to beat in the AL.
"They're not just three Number 1 starters, they're three Cy Young-caliber pitchers," says Anaheim Angels manager Mike Scioscia. "When Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were at the top of their games for the Atlanta Braves, I think most people believed it would be a long time before we saw three starting pitchers on one team that could match them. Well, here they are."
The Braves' trio thrived on friendly competition, continually trying to outdo one another in every category from highest batting average to lowest golf score, but Oakland's threesome has no such intramural battles. They push each other in another way. "Basically, it's a fear of being the worst," says Zito. "It's not so much that each of us wants to outdo the others. It's more that none of us wants to be the one who stops the momentum that the other two have started. If the other two throw great and you don't, you feel like a donkey."
Yet none of the three is the type to dwell on a bad outing. All of them have a level of self-confidence—"You can call us cocky," says Hudson, "and you wouldn't be the first"—that allows them to treat a loss as some sort of freak occurrence. "I've lost a Game 5 in back-to-back years," says Mulder, referring to defeats in the deciding games of Oakland's Division Series against the New York Yankees and the Minnesota Twins in 2001 and '02, respectively. "So I've had to get pretty good at getting over things. That's one thing all three of us have in common: We lose a game, we don't sulk; we go back to work."
That cockiness also allows Zito, Mulder and Hudson to exchange a fair amount of smack among themselves without anyone's taking offense. They dig at each other in the way that only good friends can. A favorite target for Hudson and Mulder is Zito's golf game, or lack thereof. "I can't say he's horrible," says Mulder. "Well, yes, I can. He's horrible." In fairness, Mulder does point out that Zito is a novice, having played only a handful of times. One of those occasions was with a group that included Hudson. "We were going to this pretty high-class course," Hudson says. "When I go to pick up Zito, he comes out wearing typical Zito: black pinstripe pants and a powder blue bowling shirt with VINNY over the pocket. If you're going to dress like that, you'd better be able to play, and Zito can't play. But by the 10th hole we had a few toddies in us, so it didn't really matter."
Zito and Hudson can make no such attacks on Mulder's golf game—he's a 3 handicap, the best on the team—or much of anything else about him, for that matter. "He's one of those guys who drives you crazy, because there's nothing he's not good at," Hudson says, smiling. "He's tall, good-looking, a great pitcher, whips everyone on the golf course and has all kinds of women chasing after him. Makes you sick, doesn't it?"
Although the three men have different off-field interests—while Mulder usually heads for a golf course, Zito reaches for his guitar (he has been playing for three years and performs occasionally in Bay Area coffeehouses), and Hudson, the only married one, goes home to be with wife Kim and their one-year-old daughter, Kennedy Rose—they do spend time together away from the ballpark. Hudson and Mulder have been out with Zito enough to know, for instance, that they'd better bring their wallets. " Zito never has money," Mulder says. "If you take a cab with him, be prepared to pay for it. He's not cheap, he just never has any cash."