Monday, December 20, 2010

Kid K, No Longer a Kid, Returns to Cubs

     When he left the Cubs after the 2008 season, righthander Kerry Wood made no secret of the fact that he hoped to return someday. Someday turned out to be Friday, when free-agent Wood agreed to rejoin the Cubs for one year at $1.5 million, declining several other offers, including one from the New York Yankees that was said to be for two years at $5 million per. For Wood, it clearly isn't about the money as much as it is about being where he and his family prefer to be.
     Wood is following a number of prominent Cubs pitchers of the past (Fergie Jenkins, Ken Holtzman, Rick Reuschel, Greg Maddux, and Jon Lieber) who also returned after playing elsewhere. None of them was as good the second time around, and none could have been realistically expected to be. The same is true of Wood, who was an occasionally unhittable starting pitcher in his heyday, and is now a 33-year-old seventh- or eighth-inning man out of the bullpen.
     When Wood first came on the scene in 1998, he was a pitching prospect unlike any that Cubs fans had seen in many years. Few could have guessed that hed win only 77 games in the first ten years of his career, while suffering through 12 separate stints on the disabled listbut that is what happened.
     Wood was National League Rookie of the Year in 1998, and his future stretched promisingly before him. The highlight of that season, of course, was his sensational 20-strikeout game on May 6, which is described below.

Kerry Wood
     In 1998, Kerry Wood’s babyface made him look even younger than his 20 years of age, but with a baseball in his hand he was a menacing presence. He was six-foot-five and 225 pounds, and his combination of a 100-m.p.h. fastball, devastating curveball, and wicked slider was unprecedented. So was his effort on a drizzly Wednesday afternoon at Wrigley Field, when in just his fifth major-league start, he pitched one of the greatest games of all time.
     From the day he was drafted out of high school in 1995, Wood had been the most highly touted prospect in the Cubs organization. Every scout who saw him in the minor leagues swore he was the real thing, and every team that talked trade with the Cubs asked about him. When, at the close of spring training in 1998, the Cubs decided to send him out for a little more seasoning, Anaheim Angels manager Terry Collins facetiously said he would put all his money on the Cubs to win the World Series. “If they have five [starting] pitchers better than Kerry Wood,” he said, “they’re going all the way!”
     Recalled after just one start at Iowa, Wood went 2-2 with a 5.89 earned-run average in his first four outings for the Cubs, looking brilliant at times and awful at others. Then, on May 6, he faced a Houston Astros club that had won nine of its last ten games and boasted the National League’s most potent offense. He struck out the first five batters. He fanned one more in the third, two in the fourth, and three in the fifth.
     Wood struck out one man in the sixth and struck out the side in the seventh. When he fanned the first batter in the eighth, the bleacher fans who had brought placards to mark each “K” ran out. They had brought 16. Wood struck out the next two Astros as well, whereupon other fans were recruited to augment the placards by lining up and painting K’s on their chests. Wood’s 18 strikeouts surpassed the franchise record, set in 1906, and tied the major-league record for rookies.
     Wood had worked with a scant one-run lead since the second inning, as Houston’s Shane Reynolds held the Cubs in check. The Cubs got an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth. When Wood took the mound for the ninth, the crowd of 15,758 was going wild. Billy Spiers came up to pinch hit for Reynolds. With the crowd chanting Wood’s first name, Spiers struck out. That gave Wood seven strikeouts in a row and 19 for the day. Nineteen strikeouts in one game had been accomplished five times before, including once by Nolan Ryan—Wood’s fellow Texan and his idol, in whose honor the youngster wore number 34. But even Ryan, baseball’s all-time strikeout leader, had never whiffed 20 in a game. Only another Texan, Roger Clemens, had done that—first in 1986 and again in 1996.
     Craig Biggio, the Astros’ excellent leadoff man, strode to the plate. He tapped a soft grounder to shortstop and was roundly booed for having hit the ball. Now both Wood and the Astros were down to their final out. Derek Bell was the hitter. He flailed in vain at two nasty curveballs. A steady roar now replaced the “Ker-ree!” chants. Bell let the next pitch go to make the count 1-and-2. Catcher Sandy Martinez called for another curveball.
     Bell had no chance. He was strikeout victim number 20. Wood pumped his fist once, rather sheepishly, before he was mobbed by his teammates.
     If it wasn’t the greatest single-game pitching performance in history, it was certainly the most dominant. Only two men reached base: one on a scratch single off the glove of third baseman Kevin Orie (which might easily have been ruled an error) and the other when he was hit by a pitch. Only eight pitches were hit into fair territory, just two out of the infield. Houston’s three-four-five hitters—Jeff Bagwell, Jack Howell, and Moises Alou—came to bat a total of nine times and struck out nine times.
     “It was just one of those days,” said Wood. “It just felt like playing catch out there.”

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