Hail Kerry, saint of second chances

NEW YORK -- There have been several times in Kerry Wood's career when it appeared as if his chances to be an effective major league pitcher again were as dead as the New York Yankees' chances to make it back to the World Series looked Tuesday night.

There was the Tommy John surgery in 1999 and the torn rotator cuff in 2006 and the knee injury in between. Fourteen trips to the disabled list in 13 seasons came to define Wood's career more than the blazing fastball with which he burst onto the scene as a 20-year-old in 1998 or the 20 strikeouts he recorded in just his fifth big league start as a Chicago Cub.

In fact, he had just come off the DL on the day the Yankees picked him up minutes before the expiration of the non-waiver trading deadline this season. It was only a blister that time, but the perception lingered: Kerry Wood, walking wounded. Kerry Wood, washout. Kerry Wood, bust.

On the day the trade was announced, a lot of people around the Yankees were surprised to learn that he was even still in the game. And the ones who knew, knew his numbers in Cleveland had been horrendous -- a 1-4 record, a 6.30 ERA, three blown saves in 11 opportunities and a poor ratio of 18 strikeouts to 11 walks.

Now, barely two months after the Cleveland Indians gave up on Wood, his career is very much alive and well.

And scarcely two days after they were blown out of their own ballpark for the second straight night by the Texas Rangers, the Yankees' World Series hopes are breathing again, too, in large part because of Wood's contribution.

In many ways, they are the perfect match, the young starter who through sheer grit reinvented himself as a reliever, and the resilient $200 million team that time and again shows the heart and instincts of an alley fighter.

Wood came here with no real ties to the organization, no defined role and no idea of if or how he would fit in. All he knew was that, unlike in Cleveland, he wouldn't be closing.

And the Yankees, with the exception of Joe Girardi pretty much as unfamiliar with Wood as he was with them, weren't sure exactly how they would use Wood or how much real use he would be to them.

"I had caught him so I remember when he had outstanding stuff," said Girardi, a teammate of Wood for three seasons in Chicago. "But I don't think anyone ever [thinks] you're going to get a reliever that for two months has an ERA under 1.00. Some of the best relievers of all time don't do that. I mean, I thought he would help us, but I never would have thought he could help us this much."

On a day when CC Sabathia had little more than guts, Wood turned in the key pitching performance of the 7-2 Yankees victory that sends the American League Championship Series back to Texas for Games 6 and 7.

And even more incredibly, the Yankees have a chance to maybe even pull it out.

In a clubhouse packed with players with advanced degrees in how to win a playoff series, Wood probably is the best qualified to remind them of how easily a series can be lost.

"I was on a team that was up 3-1 and we didn't get it done, so I know that it can happen," Wood said. "And we had a much better team. Obviously, the deeper a series goes, anything can happen."

He was referring, of course, to the 2003 Chicago Cubs, who absolutely, positively could not lose to the Florida Marlins, especially after taking a 3-1 lead. Not only did they have Wood, at the time a flamethrowing starter, set up to pitch Game 7, but they had Mark Prior, an 18-game winner that year and among the game's best starters, going in Game 6.

Well, they lost Game 5 in Florida, which was no big deal. Then Steve Bartman happened in Game 6, and they lost that one, too. In Game 7, Wood had a 5-3 lead after four innings -- and blew it, with the help of his bullpen. The Marlins went on to the World Series, where they beat the Yankees in six games, but that is a story for another day.

The lesson here is that nothing can be taken for granted, not even the "assurance" of a Cliff Lee victory if this thing gets a seventh game Saturday in Arlington.

And the odds are pretty good that it will, considering how the Yankees tend to abuse pitchers the second time they see them, the way they abused C.J. Wilson on Wednesday. They scratched across three second-inning runs with the help of a throwing error by Jeff Francoeur, and then got back-to-back bombs from Nick Swisher and Robby Cano in the third.

Meanwhile, Sabathia was doing what he does best, bending but not breaking, allowing 11 hits in six innings, many of them bullets, but limiting the damage to two runs.

Then, it was Wood's turn to come in and do what he has done best for the Yankees, which is build that unshakeable bridge to Mariano Rivera, which is only the second-most important job in the bullpen and arguably the most important. Because if that bridge collapses, there is no Rivera.

"There weren't any expectations when I came over here," Wood said. "I just came with the attitude that if I was ready and put up enough zeroes, maybe something would happen for me here."

Something did happen. Wood put up zero after zero after zero, 21 straight scoreless appearances covering 23 1/3 innings spanning early August to the last weekend of the season, when he finally allowed a run.

In the process, he supplanted Joba Chamberlain, who was supposed to be the heir to Rivera, and David Robertson, who was supposed to be the heir to Chamberlain, to claim sole possession of the crucial role of eighth-inning setup man.

On Wednesday, with the Yankees facing elimination and no room for error, Girardi went to Wood to start the seventh. And Wood, who has compensated for his slight dip in velocity with a slider and a sharp curveball, did what the Yankees have come to expect of him: two scoreless innings, three strikeouts, only an infield hit off the bat of Elvis Andrus that traveled barely 60 feet.

But it is what came after that hit that truly set Wood's outing apart. On his first pitch to Michael Young, the ball squirted out of Wood's hand like a melon seed, and suddenly, Andrus was at second. But after striking out Young and throwing a first-pitch strike to Josh Hamilton, Wood caught Andrus leaning the wrong way.

Boom, he whirled and fired to Derek Jeter, and just like that, Andrus, and the Rangers' final threat, was erased. It was reminiscent of Wood's pickoff of Ian Kinsler in the eighth inning of Game 1, a move that safeguarded the Yankees' one-run lead. "Both pickoffs by Kerry were huge for us," Girardi said.

Not quite as huge as GM Brian Cashman's pickup of Wood, a player who felt many times over the course of his career, especially during his 22-month absence with the rotator cuff injury, that his cause was hopeless.

"I went through thoughts like that every single day," he said. "But you just keep grinding, keep grinding, in the hopes that eventually something good will happen to you."

And something did. Kerry Wood reinvented himself first as a reliever, then as a closer and now as a setup man, the most crucial part of the Yankees' bullpen not named Rivera.

And on Wednesday, the Yankees reinvented themselves, from dead men walking on Tuesday to a team charging to its next meeting with the Rangers on Friday night, intending to grind away until maybe, eventually, something good happens.

"Making the adjustment from starter to reliever gave me a new lease on my career," Wood said. "It's kept me in the game. It's been like a second career for me. It's given me a second chance."

On Wednesday, Kerry Wood might have given the Yankees the same thing.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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