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17 years ago today: Kerry Wood stuns the sports world with 20-strikeout game

Kerry Wood’s fifth start as a Chicago Cub was a historic moment in sports history.

Wood struck out 20 Houston Astros hitters on May 6, 1998, tying the record for most strikeouts in a game.

You can relive every one of them by watching this video. More photos and stories are underneath the video.

Wood was named the Rookie of the Year after the season in which he went 13-6 with a 3.40 ERA and 233 strikeouts in 166 2/3 innings.

The Astros recorded just one hit against Wood. Every batter who came up to the plate struck out at least once.

This is a look at the Astros box score, via Baseball-Reference.com.

Here’s a story that ran in the Chicago Sun-Times the day after Wood’s historic performance, followed by another Sun-Times story about how former manager Jim Riggleman still second-guesses the decision to work Wood as much as the Cubs did that season:

Simply phenomenal – Scouts agree 20-year-old Wood is so good, it’s scary

By Dave van Dyck

May 7, 1998

His name now and forever more should be K-k-k-k- kerry Wood .

And that’s only enough K’s to get you through Wood ‘s first two innings Wednesday at Wrigley Field.

From the seventh inning on, he became K-k-k-k-k-k-k- kerry Wood .

In the end, after the last Houston Astros player had struck out, he was solid 20K(arat) Kerry Wood.

On one unforgettable, rainy afternoon, the legend that will be K-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k- kerry Wood had grown longer and faster than his first name.

The K-kid had it stuck on automatic in the 2-0, one-hit, major-league-strikeout-record-tying performance. Like having the “K” key stuck on your computer keyboard.

Those fans in the first row of the left-field bleachers_the ones who held up K cards after each strikeout_are going to have to recruit some more friends. And maybe even stretch over to the right-field bleachers.

What happened Wednesday might be your old “man against boys” matchup, except the man in this case is really just a boy.

Twenty years old.

Four major-league games behind him.

And who knows what’s ahead of him.

Maybe more than tying the record 20 strikeouts of fellow Texan Roger Clemens? Maybe more than the seven no-hitters of fellow Texan Nolan Ryan?

“That game reminded me a lot of the first time we saw Ryan,” Astros manager Larry Dierker said, “in the sense that it seemed like when the ball left his hand, it hit the (catcher’s) mitt at the same time.”

Dierker said the Houston radar gun had him at 100 m.p.h. on one pitch.

Scouts behind home plate had him at 99 m.p.h. several times and never below 95, which is still harder than any other Cubs starter throws on his best day.

However, everyone agreed that the difference Wednesday was Wood ‘s curve. For this one afternoon, at least, he couldn’t miss the strike zone with it. And that’s the reason he walked none.

“The kid’s going to have some (control) problems along the way, and he’s also going to have some more games like this,” said Dierker, who pitched his first major-league game at age 18. “He’s going to pitch a no-hitter, or maybe a few no-hitters, and he might strike out more than this sometime. His stuff is the real item.”

And then Dierker said something that’s downright scary:

“You can clearly distinguish what he is throwing from what everybody else in the league throws.”

In other words, the Cubs have potentially the best pitcher in the National League_and he’s only a rookie. There could be many more years of this to come.

Already, Wood is the No. 1 pitcher on the Cubs, even on those days when he isn’t the best pitcher in baseball, as he was Wednesday.

What happened Wednesday at Wrigley was what real No. 1 pitchers do: tell their teammates, “Climb on my shoulders, and I’ll carry you through.”

The victory not only was against the team leading the National League Central, but also followed by less than 24 hours the sloppiest Cubs performance of the season. And it came on a day when the Cubs could score only two runs.

They don’t come any better than Wednesday.

Is it possible they don’t come any better than Wood ?

“He’s the best first-year pitcher I’ve ever seen,” said Toronto Blue Jays scout Gordon Lakey, who has been scouting the major leagues for 20 years.

Sitting next to Lakey, nodding his head, was Dave Yoakum, special assistant to White Sox general manager Ron Schueler and also a scout for two decades.

“It’s the second time I’ve seen him here,” Yoakum said.

Enough to start trade rumors, usually.

“Oh, yeah, the Wood trade,” Yoakum said, laughing.

Right now, the Cubs probably wouldn’t trade Wood for the entire Sox roster.

“It’s really hard to believe he’s only 20 years old,” Yoakum said. “He has such poise and command. He’s a full-grown man out there. And he throws one pitch 99, then comes back and throws the next one that’s a curveball and starts at your face and breaks into the strike zone.”

Yoakum and Lakey clocked Wood ‘s big-breaking overhand curveball at 72 m.p.h., his three-quarter-arm angle curve (which some call a slider) at 82-84 m.p.h.

“You know,” Lakey said, “there’s a new term being used in baseball these days: electric. Like, `This guy has an electric fastball’ or `This guy has an electric curveball.’

“Well, this guy ain’t electric, he’s nuclear.”

As we have seen earlier, Wood will not always have such good command of his two curveballs. But when he is on . . .

“Pedro Martinez makes good hitters look foolish,” Yoakum said. “This guy can, too.”

He did it to the Astros’ Jeff Bagwell, the one-time unanimous most valuable player and the reigning All-Star first baseman.

Bagwell was called out on strikes in the first inning. He was called out on strikes in the fourth. He went down swinging in the seventh.

“The count was 3-and-1 (in the first), and he knows I’m a fastball hitter,” Bagwell said. “So he throws me a 3-1 slider, then on 3-and-2, he throws me a hook (curveball).

“That’s impressive. I don’t know if he can have that type of control (with the curveballs) all the time. I imagine he can’t get too much better than this.”

Anything much better would be perfection.

“The thing that really amazed me is that he throws a 3-2 curveball, on Dave Clark, in the eighth inning, with a one-run lead, and it’s raining like crazy,” Dierker said. “He throws the 3-2 curveball and gets it over the plate. It’s just amazing. ”

It was amazing from the very first pitch, a 99 m.p.h. fastball to leadoff man Craig Biggio that soared all the way back to the screen.

Biggio, a six-time All-Star, started the K parade by striking out on that at-bat. He also was one of just two Houston baserunners, getting hit by a Wood curveball in the sixth inning.

“I guess I should thank him. At least I got on base,” Biggio said.

Wood struck out only one in that sixth inning. But he struck out the side in the first, fifth, seventh and eighth.

He started the game by striking out five. He ended the game by striking out eight of nine.

Houston’s hitters never had a chance.

“Throughout the game, nobody was conceding anything in our dugout,” Dierker said. “We were trying to win the game. It’s just that we couldn’t hit the ball.”

Even the “hit” probably wasn’t a hit, although veteran official scorer Don Friske was adamant at the time_and later_that it was. If it was a hit, it was a cheap one, a soft grounder that skimmed off Kevin Orie’s glove into left field.

It doesn’t matter. Wood has plenty of time to throw his no-hitter(s). Right now, for one day, K-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k- kerry Wood is King.

‘Could I have done something different?’: Ex-skipper still thinks about his role in right-hander’s litany of injuries

By Chris De Luca

June 18, 2006

Jim Riggleman carries the burden with him to this day. He knows Kerry Wood is serving his 10th stint on the disabled list, and Riggleman can’t help second-guessing himself all the way back to 1998.

Wood’s unrealistic expectations in Chicago were manufactured on May 6, 1998, during a 20-strikeout game against the Houston Astros. But

his future – at least until now – was shaped during a fateful debut season with the Cubs.

If you want to know where Wood has been – and where he is headed – you have to go back to that Rookie of the Year season of 1998.

Sammy Sosa was slugging home runs, the Cubs were marching toward the playoffs and Wood – the best thing since Greg Maddux – was

winning over the Wrigley Field faithful.

Riggleman never wanted to promote the 20-year-old right-hander that April. Maybe he should have let Woodspend a few more weeks, months

– shoot, the whole season – at Class AAA Iowa. Maybe then, everything would be different. The injuries, the failed expectations, the second-guesses.

“I have beat myself up over that a few times, believe me,” Riggleman said.

Riggleman hasn’t managed in the majors since the Cubs fired him after a five-season run on Oct. 4, 1999. His baseball life has moved on, but he probably never will stop wrestling with the mixed emotions he has for the way he handled Wood during that delicate time.

“As a manager, one of the things you are most sensitive about is taking care of those pitchers,” Rigglemansaid from Jupiter, Fla., during a break from his duties as the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor-league field coordinator. “Anytime a pitcher gets hurt, you feel like you have to look in the mirror and say, ‘Could I have done something different?’ And I have felt like that. I felt horrible about Kerry getting hurt and that maybe we could have done something different.

“I don’t know that we would have done anything different, but still, as a manager, you look at it and say: ‘Man, maybe I shouldn’t have let him go that other inning in July. Maybe I should have pulled him. Instead of getting 120 pitches, maybe I should have just cut him off at 95 or 100.”‘

Riggleman isn’t the only manager to tangle with those questions; he is simply the first when it comes toWood.

This is a pivotal time for Wood, who turned 29 on Friday. He is eligible to return from the 15-day disabled list Thursday and might start the next evening against the Minnesota Twins. His three-year, $32.5 million contract expires at the end of this season.

The Cubs can pick up Wood’s 2007 option, worth $13.5 million, or spend $3 million to buy out the deal and make him a free agent. They also could tear up his contract and create a new package that has a more realistic salary — plus a stack of incentive bonuses — that would keep him in Chicago.

It’s too early for either side to look that far into the future. Wood, who is earning $12 million this season, is 1-2 in four starts. He opened the season on the disabled list after undergoing shoulder surgery Aug. 31. His return from the surgery has been bumpier than expected, putting more question marks on his future.

Each question mark causes more pain for Riggleman.

After a solid spring training in 1998, Wood was headed for Iowa, a move that shocked many of Riggleman’srivals in the Cactus League.

“Other managers would say: ‘How in the world are you guys that good that you have five starters better than that guy? How does he not make your club?”‘ Riggleman recalled. “But we just kind of had him on a plan.”

The plan got altered faster than anyone expected. Left-handed setup man Bob Patterson pulled a calf muscle April 9 and was headed for the disabled list. Riggleman needed a lefty reliever, so he took veteran Terry Mulholland out of the rotation and moved him into the bullpen. That opened a spot in the rotation, and Wood — two months shy of 21 — had just struck out 11 in five innings during his first start for Iowa. “It wasn’t predetermined that Kerry was going to come up,” Riggleman said. “But when Patterson got hurt, we made the decision that, ‘Hey, this is maybe quicker than we wanted to do it, but let’s bring him up feeling good and throwing good,’ and we did.”

It was April 12, 1998. Wood lasted 4* innings and took the loss, a 4-1 decision to the Montreal Expos at Olympic Stadium. He allowed four runs, four hits and three walks. Wood struck out seven, including future teammate Mark Grudzielanek, the first batter he faced.

“He showed the electric stuff,” Riggleman recalled, “but also kind of the first-day-in-the-big-leagues nerves that come with it.”

His next start, on April 18, marked Wood’s debut at Wrigley Field. Backed by an eight-run first inning, Woodearned his first victory by pitching five scoreless innings. He struck out seven and walked three.

Wood made two more starts and was 2-2. He seemed to be adjusting well to the major-league life. Nothing flashy, but solid.

“Pitched well, kept us in the games,” Riggleman said. “He was really just kind of looking like a young rookie power pitcher who is going to win some games for you. Then that game …”

“That game” came on May 6. The Astros were at Wrigley Field.

Wood struck out the first three batters, then stopped counting. The fans in left field ran out of cardboard signs after 11 strikeouts and began painting K’s on their chests. At one point, Wood struck out seven in a row. He entered the ninth inning having allowed one hit, an infield single in the third by Ricky Gutierrez that glanced off the glove of third baseman Kevin Orie.

Wood had 18 strikeouts with three outs left. Pinch hitter Billy Spiers opened the ninth by striking out, andWood had tied the National League record. Leadoff hitter Craig Biggio grounded to short, disappointing the crowd of 15,758. Then Derek Bell went down swinging. Wood had 20 strikeouts, matching Roger Clemens’ major-league record.

It took 122 pitches, but who was counting?

“It was just an amazing performance, really,” Riggleman said. “Talking to Billy Williams and Ron Santo, I remember discussing it with them — and I know it sounds a little bit like an overexaggeration — but it may have been the greatest game ever pitched in the history of that ballpark.”

That’s a lot of history.

“You had no walks, 20 strikeouts,” Riggleman argued. “I don’t know how anybody could ever find a game that was dominated more by a pitcher than what Kerry did that day. Along with what he did, that was a heck of a team that he beat. All of those guys were in their primes — Biggio and Jeff Bagwell — just some real pro hitters on the team.”

Biggio was at Wrigley Field during the Astros’ three-game sweep of the Cubs last week. He remembersWood’s big day clearly.

“He was throwing real hard,” Biggio recalled. “Obviously, you have to respect his fastball, but he had a great curveball going and a slider. I mean, 20 strikeouts in the big leagues is pretty hard to do. That was just flat-out dominant. He was on his game. And he had just such a tight curveball going, too, that guys were just having bad hacks all day long.”

Then Biggio summed up the outing perfectly: “Total dominance for a day.”

In Chicago, when you’re talking about the Cubs, that was enough.

Expectations skyrocketed. And it wasn’t just Cubs fans thinking big.

“Just throwing 97 mph alone, not many guys can do that,” Biggio said. “But to have the rest of the pitches he had, he was pretty nasty. So you knew his career was going to be just fine.”

Suddenly, this hyped-up prospect was being eyed as a savior. Forget all the veterans in the rotation such as Kevin Tapani, who won 19 games that season, or Steve Trachsel. Wood was appointed the new ace.

Was that fair?

“It was kind of unavoidable,” Riggleman said. “People love the Cubs, and there had been a lot of losses in the few years before that. We were playing OK at that time. And here is this young guy who maybe was going to be an answer to when Greg Maddux was there. A different style of pitcher, but another winning guy like Greg Maddux was. So the fans couldn’t help getting excited about it. Kerry handled it very well. He didn’t get ahead of himself.”

Wood didn’t disappoint, either. By Aug. 31 — in his 26th start of the season — Wood reached 233 strikeouts, the Cubs’ 20th-century record for a rookie.

That was Wood’s final start of the regular season. Five days earlier, Riggleman allowed Wood to throw 135 pitches during a 9-2 victory against the Cincinnati Reds. When he awoke after the Aug. 31 victory against the Reds, Wood’s right elbow was killing him.

Wood had strained ligaments in the elbow, and Riggleman shut down the kid in the heat of a pennant race.

But the damage was done. Wood was allowed to reach 120 pitches nine times that season.

He made one more start in 1998 — Game 3 of the National League Division Series against Maddux and the Atlanta Braves. Wood left after five innings with the Cubs trailing 1-0. They eventually got swept in a 6-2 loss.

Wood blew out his elbow the next spring training, requiring reconstructive surgery and missing all of the 1999 season. Riggleman was fired before Wood returned to the Cubs’ rotation.

And Riggleman still questions his choices in 1998.

“It’s very tough to have a young power pitcher in the big leagues in a situation where you are trying to win,”Riggleman said. “We weren’t just going out there like we were in ’97 and trying to get through the season; we were trying to get in the playoffs in ’98. So you are trying to win ballgames. And young power pitchers are going to throw a lot of pitches.

“You find yourself in a lot of gray areas. Six innings of pitching has taken place, and there are 95 or 100 pitches. You know that it is a tremendous psychological boost for the team in the other dugout that Kerry is not going back out there for the next inning. They’re like, ‘Oh, boy, I’m glad that guy’s out of there.’

“So you send him out there, and next thing you know, some guy fouls off 10 pitches. His pitch count is up there at 118, 120. You win the game. He goes seven. And you know, man, you just can’t have it all when you have a young power pitcher. They are going to throw a lot of pitches.”

In the heat of a playoff race, Riggleman put the team first.

“Had we been a second-division club that year and he was there, we probably would have said: ‘You know what? We are never going to let him throw more than 100 pitches. We’ll just bring him along that way,”‘Riggleman said. “But if we didn’t have a good team that year, he probably would have been in Triple-A all year.”

Riggleman has had time to reflect. Given the circumstances, he thinks he would do it all the same way. He points out that closer Rod Beck got pushed into a league-high 81 games, saving 51. Beck wasn’t the same in 1999, another casualty of a playoff race.

“I don’t think there is anybody to blame,” Riggleman said of Wood’s injury woes since 1998. “It is the nature of high-caliber baseball. When you are in playoff contention, those horses get rode.

“We were just enjoying the moment and appreciating what Kerry was doing for us, not really thinking about what he would have years later.”