Yanks use Wood to build sturdy bridge to Mo
July pickup continues to thrive after settling in as setup man
NEW YORK -- Kerry Wood was promised little more than a uniform and a few chances when he arrived in the Yankees' clubhouse as a midseason pickup, pitching his old Indians caps into a trash can and looking ahead to a fresh beginning.
Wood has taken those opportunities and run with them all the way into the playoffs, anchoring the eighth-inning bridge to closer Mariano Rivera. The 33-year-old was dominant in Game 2 of the American League Division Series, throwing nine of 10 pitches for strikes in a scoreless inning against the Twins.
"I didn't really have any expectations about what my role was going to be," Wood said. "I just wanted to mix in with the guys down there, go out and help any way I could and try to put up zeroes. I got off to a pretty good start and kind of kept going with it."
Has he ever. Wood held opponents scoreless in 31 of 35 appearances for New York during the regular season, with his 0.69 ERA ranking as the single lowest in franchise history, supplanting Goose Gossage's 0.71 ERA from 1981. He also ran off a career-high 21 straight appearances without allowing a run from Aug. 6 to Sept. 26.
"With Woody, you're getting a strong arm with a lot of experience," catcher Jorge Posada said. "He's a closer. He's closed before and been in tough situations. It's the reason why we got him."
Along the way, Wood supplanted Joba Chamberlain as the Yankees' primary eighth-inning option, though he took the hard-throwing righty under his wing as something of a mentor. Chamberlain had never met Wood before the Yanks acquired him for a Minor League pitcher on July 31, but almost everything he saw was expected.
"We all know the kind of pitcher he has been and will be, but I think why he's been so successful is the type of person he is," Chamberlain said. "It's been fun to have him down there. It's weird to see him in a Yankees uniform.
"I love it to death, but to see him wearing the No. 39 when I'm so used to seeing No. 34 on his back as a kid growing up watching him, it's still weird. But it's been awesome. He's done a lot for us."
The second half marked quite a turnaround for Wood, who spent time on the disabled list twice with the Indians, sidelined until May 8 with a strained muscle in his upper back and then again in July with a blister issue. At that time, Wood was thinking interest had to be low -- maybe he'd be a waiver wire pickup for someone in August.
But the Yankees had to do something, hoping to move both Chamberlain and Dave Robertson into more defined roles in Joe Girardi's bullpen, and so Wood was activated from the disabled list and soon shipped to meet the Yankees at Tropicana Field.
For a relatively small price -- right-handed prospect Zach McAllister, whose ceiling was generally regarded as a back-end starter -- the gamble was worth it.
"It was like the missing piece, I think, for Joe," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "We feel that we have three eighth-inning guys with Chamberlain, Robertson and him. It allowed everyone to get their rest and not be overtaxed. ... The truth of the matter is it provided structure. It's defined roles a lot easier."
First, the Yankees had to figure out what they'd just imported. Girardi said they watched video dating back to Wood's 20-strikeout game in 1998, a one-hitter against the Astros, and ran from there. Girardi knew Wood well, having caught him with the Cubs from 2000-02, but this version seemed to be less raw and more polished.
"When I caught him, he had a much bigger slider than he does today," Girardi said. "Some people talk about that might have been what hurt his elbow. His slider was as good as anyone's I've ever seen. He threw harder. His stuff was more electric. But he didn't have the command that he's had for us here, and I think that's the biggest difference."
Pitching coach Dave Eiland was able to identify a flaw in Wood's delivery, suggesting that he needed to stand taller over the rubber and raise his pitching arm during his delivery. That allowed Wood better downhill angle with his fastball, while offering late, hard depth on his curveball, which he felt no command for earlier in the year.
Wood said that he now feels his curve "has been a better pitch for me than it has been the last couple of years," and credits an improved cutter that he can alter the break and velocity on, depending on what the situation calls for. The results have been more than satisfactory.
"He stabilized the bridge to get to Mo," Eiland said. "We just knew that he'd be a nice addition in the back end of that bullpen. There's only one guy that has a defined role in that bullpen, and that's Mariano. But right now, are we comfortable in the eighth inning? Yes."
And that trust has Wood dreaming big about a glimmering prize at the end of the line, should the Yankees be able to run off nine more victories in the postseason. After seeing a previous chance with the Cubs come to an end in heartbreaking fashion during the 2003 National League Championship Series, Wood is hoping this is the year his fortunes completely reverse.
"I've got a few more years left and I hope I get the opportunity to do that in the next few years," Wood said. "It would be huge. That's why I play the game, that's why I've gone through all the rehab and surgeries. It's because you want to win a championship and you want that ring."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.