Chicago • Kerry Wood, who electrified baseball with a 20-strikeout game as a rookie in 1998 and then became a reliever after his career was slowed by injuries, is expected to retire after pitching one more time for the Chicago Cubs.
The 34-year-old Wood was in uniform Friday against the White Sox in the opener of their first interleague series of the season. The Cubs declined comment after multiple media outlets reported Wood’s decision, though manager Dale Sveum said Wood was available to pitch if needed.
“It will be tough not seeing him out there pitching,” pitcher Ryan Dempster said before the game as Wood was shagging fly balls with his son. “I hope he goes out there and finishes on a great note. He’s been a great friend and a great teammate and a great Chicago Cub.”
Wood went on the disabled list earlier this season with shoulder fatigue. He has struggled, putting up an 0-2 record and 8.64 ERA in nine appearances before Friday’s game. After a poor outing against Atlanta on May 8, a frustrated Wood tossed his cap and glove into the stands.
In all, Wood has been on the disabled list 16 times over 13-plus seasons.
Coming into the year, Wood was 86-73 with a 3.64 ERA and 63 saves. He left the Cubs as a free agent in December 2008, signing with the Cleveland Indians for two years and $20.5 million. He was traded to the Yankees in July 2010, becoming Mariano Rivera’s setup man, but he remained loyal to Chicago.
He returned to the Cubs in 2011, when he went 3-5 with a 3.35 ERA in 55 relief appearances before shutting it down because of a tear in his left knee that required arthroscopic surgery. In January, Wood agreed to play for the Cubs again for $3 million — double his 2011 pay — with a $3 million club option for 2013.
It was no secret that Wood wanted to remain a Cub. He lives in Chicago year-round, and the team’s new regime had made it clear the feelings were mutual. New president of baseball operations Theo Epstein called it a “no-brainer” move to bring back the popular reliever.
Wood, after all, came of age as an athlete in Chicago and his games have provided some welcome bright spots for a Cubs franchise that infamously hasn’t won a World Series in more than a century.
The Cubs’ No. 1 selection in the 1995 amateur draft was a 20-year-old rookie when he delivered one of the greatest pitching performances of all time. On May 6, 1998, he allowed only one hit, a third-inning single by Ricky Gutierrez, in a 2-0 victory over the Houston Astros. It was his fifth major league start.
As the game progressed and with rain falling, Wood’s stuff was never better. Throwing fastballs at 100 mph and with his slider dipping around the Houston bats, Wood didn’t walk a batter, hit one with a pitch and gave up that lone infield single in the third on a ball Cubs third baseman Kevin Orie couldn’t come up with.
When Wood fanned Bill Spiers in the ninth for his 19th strikeout, Wood tied the National League record. He struck out Derek Bell to end the game and tie Roger Clemens’ major league mark (the two still remain the only MLB pitchers to do it in nine innings).
“I didn’t know how many strikeouts I had. I knew I had already given up a hit in the third inning,” Wood later recalled. “I was just trying to get my first complete game.”
He added: “I’ll never forget it. It’s a great moment in my life and my career.”
Wood said his slider was his main weapon that day as he struck out the side in the first, fifth, seventh and eighth innings, and fanned two each in the second, fourth and ninth, and one each in the third and the sixth. Wood threw 122 pitches, 84 for strikes, and got a congratulatory phone call from Clemens afterward.
“The age, as hard as he threw, the command and the poise that he had on the mound, nothing bothered him that day,” Gutierrez recalled. “After the game, we just took our hats off to him. He did a great job. There’s nothing you can take away from him.”
In his next outing, Wood struck out 13 in seven innings, setting a major league record for strikeouts in back-to-back games. Clemens and Nolan Ryan, whose No. 34 Wood wore on his back, are fellow Texans and the pitchers who most inspired the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Wood, who is from Irving, Texas.
Wood finished the 1998 season ranked third in the NL in strikeouts and won the NL Rookie of the Year award. He missed the final month with a sore right elbow, then had reconstructive elbow surgery the next April, starting a run of arm and shoulder problems that undercut his career.
He had three double-figure victory seasons from 2001-03, and in 2003 he helped the Cubs reach Game 7 of the NLCS, where he was the losing pitcher despite hitting a home run against the Florida Marlins.
Shoulder problems nearly ended his career, but he made a stirring comeback and a successful transition to the bullpen, emerging as the Cubs’ closer in 2008 and converting 34 of 40 save opportunities.