Wood looks back on career game
Cubs closer strikes out 20 against Astros on May 6, 1998
CHICAGO -- Ten years ago, Kerry Wood threw 122 pitches, and it changed his life.
On May 6, 1998, Wood was making his fifth career start for the Chicago Cubs. The rookie right-hander didn't feel sharp in the bullpen, the weather was drizzly, Sandy Martinez was catching him for the first time, and there were 15,758 fans at Wrigley Field on hand to witness history.
On that day, Wood struck out 20, tying a Major League record for most Ks in a game. It's been 10 years, and since that outing, a 2-0 Cubs win over the Houston Astros, he's made 178 starts, had surgery on his right elbow and his right shoulder, spent more time on the disabled list than he'd like to think about, and moved to the bullpen as the Cubs' closer.
It's been a wild ride for Kid K.
"I have a lot more innings under my arm, a lot more injuries," Wood said Wednesday. "I have the same mentality I had then -- the job's the same. I still have to get hitters out."
Wood began the game by striking out Craig Biggio, Derrek Bell and Jeff Bagwell. He fanned Jack Howell, then Moises Alou in the second. Dave Clark then flied to center.
In the Houston third, Rickey Gutierrez singled to left, a ball that skipped under Cubs third baseman Kevin Orie's glove. It was ruled a hit. It was the only Astros hit in the game, as Wood went the distance.
"I think [Orie] got the raw end of the deal," Wood said. "As soon as it happened, I thought it was a base hit. Maybe if it happens in the sixth or seventh, it might go down as an error. It was a base hit all the way."
That one-hit complete game is still Wood's personal best, which he matched May 25, 2001, against Milwaukee. The right-hander didn't think about trying to repeat 20 Ks.
"Even that early in my career, I knew I had to focus on what I can do when I go out there, and that's not going to happen again," Wood said. "There's going to be days when you feel that good, but those results aren't going to happen. I think I realized that early, even with all the attention from that game on, I just tried to focus on the simple stuff on the field."
Roger Clemens, who set the mark April 29, 1986, and matched it Sept. 18, 1996, called after the game to congratulate Wood. He talked to Jay Leno. Wood wasn't quite prepared for all the attention. At first, he did every interview and every radio show, and was exhausted. Fortunately, teammate Sammy Sosa and St. Louis' Mark McGwire created a diversion with their home run race in '98.
Wood was 20 then; he's 30 now with two young children. And his highlight game can be seen on ESPN Classic.
"The strike zone blows my mind," Wood said of the game, called by home-plate umpire Jerry Meals. "I got some pretty generous calls."
Of the 20 strikeouts, eight were called, including Alou, Clark and Gutierrez in the fifth. How impressed were the Astros? Last season, when Biggio retired, he asked Wood to sign a bat commemorating the game, saying it was the most dominating performance he'd seen.
Wood wasn't counting, although fans were posting "K" cards with each strikeout.
"I probably looked down at my feet the whole time between innings," Wood said. "As the game went on, I got more locked in. I didn't notice anybody not sitting next to me. I didn't know how many strikeouts I had. I knew I'd given up a hit in the third inning."
It's the No. 1 highlight of his career. The top three also include his win in Game 5 of the National League Division Series against Atlanta, and a two-run home run in Game 7 of the 2003 National League Division Series off Florida's Mark Redman.
Someone someday will likely strike out 21.
"I think it's reachable," Wood said. "I don't think I'd ever punched out more than 12 before that happened."
He saved his glove, a ball and his spikes from that game. The Hall of Fame has his hat and jersey.
"It was like watching a younger version of Roger Clemens," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said of the 20-K game. "A big, strong, right-handed kid throwing the heck out of the ball and throwing it right by people, that's the reminder I had. You thought that the sky was the limit potential-wise, and it was. Unfortunately, he had some physical problems which curtailed that. Now he's back in a new role and he's doing a nice job, a real nice job.
"He's a talented young man, and I think he's found his niche in the bullpen, and if we can keep him nice and healthy and rested and strong there, he'll do a real nice job for us."
Wood is living in the present, and his children help.
"Good day, bad day, you come home and all the kids want to do is play," Wood said. "My son likes coming to the games. He likes being with the crowd. He still cheers when I give up a home run because the crowd is cheering. He always wants to cheer when the crowd is cheering. That's what it's about."
Someday, Wood will sit down with son Justin and and daughter Katherine and play a tape of the game.
"I can't wait for my kids to get old enough to grasp the concept and be able to watch it," Wood said. "I'll never forget it. It was a great moment in my life, and my career. It was wonderful."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.