Continued from page 1

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 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 on a ball Cubs third baseman Kevin Orie couldn’t come up with.

When he 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 major league pitchers to do it in a nine-inning game).

“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, 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.”

Wood struck out 13 in seven innings his next outing, setting a big 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 league’s 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 missed the entire 1999 season.

He had three double-figure victory seasons from 2001-03, and in 2003 he helped the Cubs reach Game 7 of the NL championship series, 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.

“The shoulder was a lot tougher in the end there, in ‘05 and ‘06, was the toughest thing to come back from,” Wood recalled. “But you come back from it because you love the game of baseball and you love competing. You love being in that clubhouse with 24 other guys.”

Steve Stone, the Cy Young Award winner who has been a broadcaster for both the Cubs and White Sox, said Wood threw across his body and that put undue stress on his arm.

Story Continues →