09/29/2003 7:32 PM ET
Wood gets the call in Game 1
ATLANTA - Kid K is all grown up.
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
Kerry Wood, a tall rookie pitcher from Texas, became "Kid K" in his fifth big-league start. The Chicago Cubs right-hander fanned 20 Houston Astros on May 6, 1998, en route to a 13-6 record his first season.
The Cubs won the NL Wild Card that year, but Wood didn't get a chance to pour champagne on his teammates. He missed the last month of the regular season because of a sprained ligament in his right elbow. He was rehabbing in Arizona.
However, he was activated for the '98 NLDS and started Game 3 against the Atlanta Braves. Wood gave up one run on three hits over five innings but took the loss as the Cubs were swept. He won Rookie of the Year but elbow surgery forced him to miss the entire 1999 season. His young career was in jeopardy.
Look where he is now.
Wood will start again in the NLDS, this time opening the best-of-five series for the Cubs against those same pesky, but now powerful Braves. He'll take the mound Tuesday night at Turner Field healthy, relaxed, with a Major League-leading 266 strikeouts, and a much more mature pitcher.
|Probable starting lineups: Game 1|
Kenny Lofton, CF
Mark Grudzielanek, 2B
Sammy Sosa, RF
Moises Alou, LF
Aramis Ramirez, 3B
Eric Karros, 1B
Alex Gonzalez, SS
Paul Bako, C
Kerry Wood, P
Rafael Furcal, SS
Marcus Giles, 2B
Gary Sheffield, RF
Chipper Jones, LF
Andruw Jones, CF
Javy Lopez, C
Robert Fick, 1B
Vinny Castilla, 3B
Russ Ortiz, P
"He's been through everything from the highest point of his career to the lowest point of anybody's career," teammate Mark Prior said. "He's been through it all, and, obviously, he's come out on top, and he's a lot of fun to watch."
"With his stuff, and if he could get consistent command, he could be the top right-hander in the league if he wants to be," said Cubs catcher Damian Miller, who caught two pretty good pitchers in Arizona by the names of Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson. "He hasn't beaten himself. He makes pitches when he has to and he wins big games."
Like the June 7 Interleague contest against the New York Yankees, when he beat one of his childhood idols, Roger Clemens, who was vying for his 300th career win. Wood fanned 11 over 7 2/3 innings in that game. Wrigley Field was packed with 39,000 plus and each strike was greeted by a roar. It felt like a playoff atmosphere. But that was then. This is now.
"You're talking postseason now, and it's a whole different mindset," Wood said.
The right-hander is a different pitcher, too, from '98, and it's not just because of the scar on his right elbow or the fact that he dresses better or carries a guitar on road trips.
"Obviously, I'd like to think of myself as a different pitcher," Wood said. "That was my rookie year (in 1998), and I'd missed a month and, obviously, I didn't feel as sharp (in the playoffs) after missing a month.
"This year, we won our division, and we're coming in here with expectations to win the series," he said. "I think in '98 we were more surprised to be in the series. This year, we expected to be here, we're here and it's a whole different feeling."
Wood is one-fourth of the main reason the Cubs won the NL Central. Chicago's foursome of Wood, Prior, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement each have totaled 200 innings and at least 13 wins. The Cubs haven't had that kind of pitching since 1945, the last time they went to the World Series.
Wood enters the playoffs on a high note. He's 3-1 with a 1.00 ERA in five September starts, giving up four earned runs over 36 innings and striking out 47. He did have a lower back problem, but that's being aggressively treated and under control.
"I feel healthy, I feel good, everything feels good," Wood said. "I feel strong. For me (this month) it's been getting ahead of hitters and getting ahead of guys in counts and not getting behind. You have a lot more success when you get ahead and that's what I've been doing."
"The maturing process is taking hold," Miller said. "One thing that I think he's really improved on is not beating himself and not giving those guys a big inning. I think he's starting to realize how good he is and how good he can be.
"He knows he has a challenge ahead of him, and we have complete confidence that he can go out there and do the job."
Wood did not face the Braves this year, and is 2-0 with a 2.14 ERA lifetime. Who gets the advantage?
"I'm not going to worry about that," Wood said. "I've got to go out and make my pitches."
His teammates see the difference in the 26-year-old right-hander. Wood's success could be simply because his arm is finally 100 percent healthy.
"I think part of that is coming back from surgery," Clement said. "Right at the beginning, it's not easy. He's been tremendous and consistent and the whole thing with him -- and it can be said for most of us -- is getting ahead in the count.
"The thing is, his stuff is good enough that when he doesn't get ahead in the count, it doesn't mean it's over," Clement said. "He competes, he loves going out there and it's fun for me to watch. It's amazing to see that after surgery. It's the best arm I've ever seen, the way it comes out and the pitches he throws."
Wood also has been a guide for Prior and Zambrano.
"I think we have similar styles," Prior said. "Obviously, he's a power pitcher and teams have similar at-bats against him or reactions to certain pitches so I do pick up how a guy responds to an inside fastball and what kind of sequence to throw him. Plus, I watch his overall composure and demeanor on the mound."
"He's kind of like an example of what you have to throw and what you have to do," Zambrano said. "You have your own program, your own thing. But one guy follows another and you take good things from the other pitcher and you learn from that."
Wood is still learning, too.
"Every year, I come to Spring Training and get ready for the season, and I feel like I learn stuff every year," he said. "I feel I've made improvements from the way I was throwing the ball last year. Really that's it. I'm just picking little things up and having a better idea of hitters and having a better idea of what I want to do with the ball."
All he wants to do Tuesday is throw strikes.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.