Wood's star rising

Kerry Wood has been one of baseball's biggest teases. If you've watched closely in the last eight months or so -- at the end of 2003 and the start of '04 -- you've seen him blossom into a major star.

Tony La Russa and his St. Louis Cardinals saw that for themselves in the two series late last season that propelled the Cubs to a division title while forcing La Russa's star-spangled lineup to the sidelines. They'll get another look Friday night, when Wood (out on bond from the five-game suspension he was hit with earlier this week) opens a four-game Midwest showdown at Busch Stadium.

The kid from the Dallas suburbs has had the talent to dominate since he arrived in the big leagues in 1998, when he was taken under the wings of old-timers like Mark Grace and Rod Beck, but couldn't harness the consistency necessary to be a front-of-the-rotation starter on a winning team. His development was slowed by an elbow injury that cost him the '99 season but even when healthy he seemed to lack the Tiger Woods gene.

Provided substandard run support in most seasons, with Sammy Sosa the only constant in an ever-changing lineup, he never won more than 14 games in a season. But that will change this time around, with the only question being health, as it always must be with a pitcher.

Wood has emerged exactly on cue with a franchise that has its own history of underachieving. General manager Jim Hendry has hired a manager and constructed a lineup that should have staying power. Both Dusty Baker and the collection of run-producers perfectly complement the pedal-to-the-metal confidence of Wood.

This is a guy who is comfortable in a fight. He always has been, in fact, challenging his teammates during hard times when older veterans, most conspicuously Sosa, were content blending in with the clubhouse furniture.

Wood's postgame tirade at Busch Stadium in May 2002, may have been the moment that signaled his accelerated growth process. He called out his teammates, who had just lost their fifth game in a row in what would become a nine-game losing streak. It ended, not surprisingly, on Wood's next turn.

At the time, Wood was nearing his 25th birthday. It seems he realized he had finally put the frightening recovery from Tommy John surgery behind him. He had gone to the playoffs as a rookie and was impatient to get back there. He was tired of being a lovable loser.

There was nothing that could be done to salvage 2002, which turned from bad to worse when Hendry promoted Triple-A manager Bruce Kimm to replace Don Baylor. But the hiring of Baker changed everything.

Baker is a guy who not only knows how to win, but also he actually expects it. He is also a manager who is not afraid to ride the broad shoulders of a stud pitcher. He is less concerned about pitch counts than most managers, often allowing his top starters to work an inning or even two more than many others would.

Wood won the first game Baker managed in a Cubs' uniform, beating Tom Glavine in the 2003 season-opener at Shea Stadium, but found himself only 5-5 in mid-June. He got to 10-6 by winning five of his next six starts, but then backslid to 11-10 after getting hit around in an important August start in Houston.

That's when something changed. Everything finally clicked, most likely just because Wood willed it to change.

Like Baker, he expected to make a difference. The three-team National League Central race between the Cubs, Astros and Cardinals gave him a chance to make a difference. He ran with it, and hasn't looked back.

Along with Mark Prior, Wood pitched the Cubs into the playoffs. Then he almost single-handedly mowed down the Atlanta Braves, giving Chicago its first winning postseason series since 1908. He ran out of steam against the Florida Marlins, saying he "choked'' after not protecting a 5-3 lead in Game 7 of the NLCS, one he had helped build with a dramatic home run, but it only appears to have served as more fuel for his inner fire.

With Prior on the disabled list and Greg Maddux sputtering out of the gate, Wood has been Baker's horse in April. He's 3-1 with a 2.60 ERA entering Friday's start. The lone loss came when Baker let him take a 2-1 lead into the ninth inning against Cincinnati. In that inning, Wood felt he had struck out the Reds' Adam Dunn with a 3-2 pitch but didn't get the call from umpire Eric Cooper and eventually gave up two runs.

Wood threw 131 pitches in that game -- a total that flies in the face of conventional wisdom. It marked the sixth time in a stretch of 14 starts that Baker allowed him to go beyond 120 pitches.

This kind of use fits the profile of a horse, and that is what Wood has grown into. In this run of starts, which began with the stretch-run outings against St. Louis, he has gone 9-3 with a 2.29 ERA. He had been 11-10 with a 3.80 ERA in his first 26 starts last season.

The biggest difference in the before-and-after is not something as basic as throwing strikes. He's walking just about as many as he had before and isn't striking out any more. The thing he's not doing is giving up big hits.

Wood is holding opponents to a .129 batting average with men in scoring position this season. He's allowed only one home run. He had given up 22 of them through 168 innings last year, but now has allowed only five in his last 98 1/3 innings.

Hendry looks wise indeed for never once considering doing anything but signing Wood to a contract extension. Wood went to spring training with free agency possible after the season, but signed a deal that seems likely to keep him in Chicago through at least 2007.

It's going to be interesting to see just how good he is by then. He'll turn 30 during the '07 season, with nine big-league seasons under his belt.

Combined with his talent, this is a formula for greatness. He's figured something out, and he's not likely to forget it.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.