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Friday, May 18, 2012
Kerry Wood and the greatest game pitched

By David Schoenfield

Kerry Wood
On May 5, 1998, Kerry Wood, then 20, struck out 20 Houston Astros in nine innings.
I'll never forget walking into the office that May afternoon in 1998 and having excited co-workers ask, "Did you see what just happened?"

Kerry Wood had struck out 20 batters.

He was 20 years old, making his fifth career major league start for the Chicago Cubs, and he had just blown away the Houston Astros, one of the best hitting teams in the league. We saw the highlights on "SportsCenter." Yes, it was a gray, overcast day at Wrigley Field, and maybe the Astros had trouble picking up the ball, but I'm not sure it mattered all that much. I remember the "SportsCenter" highlights, in which they showed all 20 strikeouts in rapid-fire fashion. I've since watched the game on replay.

You can talk about Nolan Ryan or Roger Clemens or Randy Johnson at their best, but I've never seen a more dominating pitching performance. His pitches were moving like whiffle balls thrown in the middle of the Columbia River Gorge, except they were moving at 95 miles per hour.

The Astros had no chance.

They managed one infield single and Wood hit a batter, so it wasn't a perfect game or even a no-hitter. But by the Bill James Game Score method, it was the best game ever pitched. Game Score rewards pitchers for strikeouts, and subtracts points for runs, hits and walks. There have been just nine starts of nine innings in which a pitcher scored 100 or better. Ryan (twice), Johnson, Curt Schilling, Warren Spahn and Brandon Morrow scored 100; Ryan (with a 16-strikeout, two-walk no-hitter) and Sandy Koufax (his 14-strikeout perfect game) scored 101.

Kerry Wood's game? 105. Nine innings, one hit, no walks, 20 K's. Untouchable.

We all know what happened after that. Wood threw across his body, causing an abrupt snap as his shoulder crashed into his chest, and analysts predicted that motion would eventually lead to an injury. It didn't help that Cubs manager Jim Riggleman had Wood run up some high pitch counts that rookie season -- 133, 129, 128, 123, 123, eight games of 120-plus in all. He missed the final month of the season with a sore elbow, but the Cubs brought him back to start a playoff game. The following spring, his elbow gave out. Tommy John surgery.

To his credit, Wood never blamed Riggleman. "My elbow was going to go," Wood told The Washington Post in 2010. "If it didn't go with [Riggleman] it would've gone with someone else. It was the way I was throwing, the stuff I had, the torque I was generating. It was a matter of time."

Wood recovered and returned as a power pitcher, although his stuff was never quite as electric. In 2003, he made the All-Star team and led the National League in strikeouts. The Cubs won the division. Dusty Baker worked him hard that year. He threw 141 pitches in a May victory against the Cardinals, 130 in a 1-0 shutout against the Marlins in July. In his final six starts of the regular season, he threw 125, 120, 122, 114, 125 and 122 pitches.

In Game 5 of the division series, Wood allowed one run in eight innings to beat the Braves in the series clincher. It was one of the great moments in Cubs history, getting them one round closer to the World Series, the unthinkable becoming believable. And then, in the NLCS against the Florida Marlins ... Game 6, the heartbreaker. But the Cubs still had Game 7 and Wood on the mound.

I remember sitting at home alone that night, watching the game. I wasn't a Cubs fan but of course you were rooting for them, rooting for Wood, a reward for all the elbow pain, the surgery, the rehab he'd gone through over the years. Miguel Cabrera hit a three-run homer off him in the top of the first, but the Cubs fought back. Wood himself hit a two-run homer in the second; the Cubs led 5-3. Wood to the rescue.

The World Series, of course, was not to be. The Marlins scored three runs in the fifth. Baker stuck with Wood, unwilling to admit Wood couldn't will the Cubs to victory that night, no matter how sentimental that storyline. Baseball isn't like that. Finally, after two singles in the sixth, Baker went to the mound. The Cubs' fans gave Wood a loud ovation, bittersweet and melancholy.

Wood was never the same after that. He got injured in 2004, made just 10 starts in 2005 and four in 2006, then spent the past six seasons pitching in relief, moving from the Cubs to the Indians to the Yankees and back to the Cubs.

It's weird; you're only supposed to feel sad, I suppose, when your favorite player retires. But for some reason, I felt a pit in my stomach Friday when I heard Wood was retiring. I can't help but think back to the May afternoon and those 20 strikeouts and how a co-worker of mine always referred to him as "Baby Kerry" after that because he looked so young and was a little chubby in his appearance, a kid in a man's sport, a kid with unhittable stuff. Maybe it's just remembering your own younger days, when you could watch in awe of an athletic performance, thinking of that golden arm.

Wood won 86 games in his career, never pitched in the World Series, made a lot of money. He does have one important lasting legacy, beyond that 20-strikeout game: In part because of what happened to Wood (and teammate Mark Prior and others), teams are more careful with how they handle young starters. You won't see 20-year-old kids throwing 130 pitches in a game, no matter their ability. One reason we're seeing so many good young pitchers now and declining levels of offense is that pitchers are healthier and not flaming out in the minors or early on in their major league careers.

Sure, maybe teams are too cautious with this approach, but I'd rather see that than what happened with Wood. He undoubtedly won't view himself as an unfortunate trailblazer, but rather as a pitcher who grinded his way through 14 major league seasons, giving his best.

In the end, that's all each of us can do, no matter our gifts.