When you're a right-handed pitcher from Texas, and you throw hard, and you have been tabbed as "The Next Big Thing," the comparisons are inevitable.
Nolan Ryan. Roger Clemens.
Wood was still a fresh-faced kid starring at Grand Prairie High School when the comparisons to Ryan and Clemens first surfaced. They followed Wood to the Draft as the Cubs' No. 1 pick in 1995, through his three years in the Minor Leagues, and to his Major League debut on April 12, 1998, in Montreal.
And it certainly was at the forefront of the conversation when Wood took the mound against the Astros -- a Texas team -- at Wrigley Field three starts later.
Within Cubs circles, of course, there was already intrigue surrounding Wood. But it also extended to Wood's home state, where fireballing right-handers are a source of pride, given the others who fit that bill and were raised in the Lone Star State.
Surely Wood, only 20, was still too young and inexperienced to handle the lofty expectations of becoming the next Ryan or Clemens. But then, on May 6, 1998, he resembled both. In a dramatic, record-setting day against the first-place Astros, Wood mowed through a lineup that was, at the time, the best in Houston's franchise history.
Wood allowed one borderline hit, plunked Craig Biggio and set a National League record -- while tying the MLB record -- with 20 strikeouts. He also posted a Game Score of 105, which is still the highest recorded for a nine-inning start.
Not bad for a kid whose Major League resume up until that point consisted of one mediocre start, one good one and two bad ones. Wood's fifth career start put him on the Major League map and flummoxed a Houston lineup that consisted of multiple All-Stars and two future Hall of Famers, all of whom later lifted the Astros to a club-record 102 wins while leading the NL with 874 runs scored.
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of one of the greatest performances in Major League history, here's a look back, as told by those who lived it:
CHAPTER 1: THE BUILDUP
Jeff Bagwell, Astros first baseman: We had heard this young kid from Texas threw hard. But whatever -- we had a good team back then, in '98. You hear things -- "Oh look, this guy's going to come up. He's the greatest." Then it's this guy, and this guy, and this guy, and this guy.
Dave Clark, Astros outfielder: The year before, I was with the Cubs. It was all you heard about -- this prospect Kerry Wood, and he throws 100 mph with a really, really good breaking ball. We didn't get a chance to see him in big league camp, but that was all the talk in Spring Training of '97.
Brad Ausmus, Astros catcher: I remember hearing the name and knowing he was a highly touted pitcher that threw hard. But quite frankly, when you're at the big league level, you hear that about a lot of people. It's common for the overblown reputation to precede the player, especially when you're talking about a high Draft pick. So you don't really get too worried about it.
Bill Brown, Astros TV announcer: The legend of Kerry Wood had been pretty well-publicized from his Grand Prairie days, and the fact that he was a Texan and threw hard. People think of Nolan Ryan and other Texans who threw hard in the big leagues, and that was attractive to baseball fans. The name was out there. But seeing it at the Major League level is quite different sometimes.
That day at Wrigley Field, a few Astros players watched Wood warm up in the bullpen and got what they thought was a preview to what they might see that day. They were wrong.
Bagwell: I was like, "OK, he throws pretty hard, he looks all right, 93, 94 [mph] ... he has a curveball, maybe a slider." And then [Biggio] stepped in the box. And I saw the first fastball. And I go, "Where did that extra five, six miles an hour come from?" And it was all downhill from there.
Moises Alou, Astros outfielder: I was a cocky hitter and I didn't care who was pitching. Bags and [Biggio], they always knew who was pitching the next week. Sometimes I found out who's pitching when I was doing my sprints before the game. I pretty much knew a kid was pitching and that he was a phenom. Then I saw the electric stuff live and I said, "Oh [bleep]."
Wood: I don't think I threw any strikes warming up. I was all over the place. Balls were all over the place. I think I actually shut it down early and flipped the ball to [pitching coach] Phil Regan and said, "We're done. I'm loose. It's only going to get worse. It's time to start save my bullets." It was an ugly warmup.
That part continued -- briefly -- when the game started. Wood's first pitch -- a fastball -- missed catcher Sandy Martinez's glove and hit home-plate umpire Jerry Meals squarely in the mask.
Meals: I wasn't sure if I needed to eject somebody right there or what. It just didn't make a whole lot of sense to me at that time. It was shocking more than anything. I couldn't figure out how he didn't catch it. He knew a fastball was coming. He just couldn't get it. It was like the rest of the game -- the Astros couldn't catch up to him, either. It was a weird beginning.
Wood: I'd gone 50 pitches in the bullpen and didn't throw one strike, and the first pitch of the game, I hit the umpire in the mask, and I'm like, "Here we go." It wasn't reassuring for me.
CHAPTER 2: COMING OUT HOT
In the opening frame, Biggio swung at a high fastball out of the zone for strike three, Derek Bell whiffed on a curveball and Bagwell looked at a fastball down the middle. Wood ended up striking out the first five batters.
Clark: I remember after Baggy's first at-bat, he came back and said, "Boys, it's going to be a long day. Or maybe it's going to be a short day."
Ausmus: In '96, I was with the Tigers when Roger Clemens struck out 20. So this was my second one. I remember thinking in the dugout, "Clemens struck out 20. I'm afraid this guy might strike out 27."
Clark ensured that wouldn't happen. In the second inning, Wood fanned Jack Howell and Alou on fastballs, but Clark made contact, sending a fly ball to deep center.
Clark: I made contact my first at-bat and I'm thinking, "You know what, I'm going to see him a couple more times, and I've got a shot. I'll get him next time." And my God, when I saw him mowing these guys down, I'm like, "Oh my."
Bagwell: I just never saw a ball break like that.
Jim Riggleman, Cubs manager: We knew we were watching something very special after a few innings. It was just strikeout after strikeout, making some hitters -- Hall of Famers -- have bad days.
Ricky Gutierrez, Astros shortstop: We knew we were in trouble in the first inning. I always used to ask [Alou] about pitchers. He would look at a pitcher and say, "Yeah, he's throwing good." I would just gauge it on him. After Wood struck him out the first time, he walked into the dugout and I said, "Moises, how is he?" He just looked at me and said, "Good luck."
Alou: I was glad I only had three at-bats. I would have had struck out four times.
CHAPTER 3: THE HIT*
The Cubs pushed across a run in the bottom of the second, when Mark Grace hit a leadoff double, advanced to third on an error and came around to score on a Henry Rodriguez sac fly, giving Wood all the run support he would need. Unfortunately, Wood's no-hit chances disappeared in the third inning. Gutierrez made moderate contact with a hanging curveball and reached safely when the ball barely nicked third baseman Kevin Orie's glove and trickled into left field.
Orie: Had I dove, and committed to the dive sooner, I absolutely could have stopped the ball. Whether or not I could have gotten up and thrown him out, I'm not sure. You would hope so, but I had this feeling at the last second that I needed to reach out and grab it and try to get him at first. That little hesitation and reach just cost me a little bit of ground.
Gutierrez: You don't want to go down as being the team that struck out 20 times and also got no-hit. So you feel good about it, being able to [get a hit].
The play was quickly ruled a hit by official scorer Don Friske, who, like everyone else watching that game, had no idea that would be the last hit Wood would allow.
Wood: The only way Kevin gets that ball is if he lays out and dives. At that point, Ricky probably still had decent wheels, and you're not going to get him on a slow-hit ball where you have to leave your feet. It nicked [Orie's] glove, but [Gutierrez] was in full stride, full stretch and everything. It was a base hit -- base hit all the way.
Gutierrez: I saw it hit the tip of his glove. I thought it was a hit. I never second-guessed that.
Friske: Nobody in the press box said anything. Everybody just assumed it was a hit. I didn't start getting questions until it was the seventh, eighth innings, and it was just a few reporters. Nobody said a word when it happened.
Jim Deshaies, who at the time was the Astros' television color announcer, initially thought the play should have been ruled an error. "I'm surprised that's not an error," Deshaies said on the telecast. "Especially in this ballpark, with this kid pitching."
Deshaies: That may have been my pitcher's bias. I haven't seen that play in a long time. I watched it the other day. I kind of came away with a feeling that it was a play that could have been made, but I'm not sure it should have been made.
Friske: [Deshaies] was the only one who questioned it. None of the Cubs' broadcasters ever questioned it. [Deshaies] actually couldn't believe it was a hit, and mostly because Wood was pitching a good game and he was surprised. That's the only person who semi-questioned it when it happened.
Pat Hughes, Cubs radio announcer: My feeling at that point immediately was "base hit." I thought Kevin Orie did a pretty good job to get his glove on the ball. As I was scoring the game, I noticed the ball went through him and into shallow left field and I put "Hit 7" -- hit to seven [on my scorebook]. It was not an easy play at all. I think Kevin did a good job just to get leather on it. Base hit all the way.
Deshaies: If I'm the official scorer and that happens in the seventh inning, I'm going to call it a straight error. Because it happened earlier in the game, and having seen it again, I'm probably more 50-50 on it.
As the game progressed, there was considerable dugout chatter speculating if the call would be changed.
Gutierrez: There was talk like, "They're probably going to try to change it." I said, "I guess we'll see what happens." As the game went on, somebody mentioned it: "They might take away that hit if it's the only hit we got."
Craig Biggio, Astros second baseman: It was so early in the game, no one knew it was going to be a no-hitter. But you can't go back and change it in the sixth or seventh inning and then make it a no-hitter. That's just really bad.
Friske: I had a couple people come up at the end of the game and say, "Are you thinking of changing that?" I said, "No."
Orie: Of course, the game unfolded the way it did. I said, "You've got to be kidding me." I went in the clubhouse [after the game] and was just immediately making announcements to everybody: "Hey look, just give me an error. I'll gladly accept an error on that. That's fine, no problem." Obviously, that's not how it works, and they did not give me an error.
CHAPTER 4: GAINING STRENGTH
Meanwhile, as dominant as Wood was early, he became otherworldly in the later innings. Wood struck out five in a row at one point, highlighted by striking out the side looking in the fifth. By that point, he had fanned 11. Six of those 11 K's were on called third strikes.
Wood: I felt it change in about the first part of the fourth inning. Bagwell's second at-bat -- that's when I buckled him on back-to-back breaking balls, and that's when I really felt everything click in was Bagwell's second at-bat.
Bagwell: I remember sitting in the dugout after my [third] strikeout, and I got back and I was by the water cooler. Tony Eusebio was sitting there and he goes, "Baggy. That's 15." I said, "Fifteen?" He said, "Fifteen punchies." I looked up and said, "We're only in the [seventh]."
Sandy Martinez, Cubs catcher: I didn't know until the seventh inning that he had that many K's. In the seventh inning, for some reason, I looked to left field and the bleachers, and saw all the K's and said, "Damn, we got so many." I didn't realize he had that many K's. The only thing I had in my mind was to try to win the game.
Larry Dierker, Astros manager: It was like the first time I saw Nolan Ryan. He was pitching in the [Astrodome], and guys were kind of scattered along the dugout. Before the first inning was over, everyone on our team was lined up in front of the dugout. No one had seen anything like that. That's the way it was right at the start of that Kerry Wood game. It was like, "Nobody can throw like this."
Brown: The way he did it, it was basically like he was facing a bunch of high school hitters -- just plowing through the lineup.
CHAPTER 5: FINISHING IN STYLE
The announced attendance for this matinee on a rainy Wednesday was 15,758, but in the final three innings, as Wood's strikeout count continued to rise, and the "K" signs held by the fans in the left-field bleachers accumulated, the ballpark grew louder. There was also one freshly painted "E-5" sign -- one fan's way of imploring the official scorer to change Gutierrez's hit to an error on Orie.
Wood: About the sixth, seventh innings, it seemed like people started creeping down closer to the field. It was getting louder with two strikes on hitters about the seventh inning. Every time I got ahead of guys and got two strikes, it seemed like it was getting louder. I started to feel the fans in the seventh inning -- end of the sixth, start of the seventh.
With Cubs closer Rod Beck warming in the bullpen, Wood tied the NL record with a strikeout of Bill Spiers, who was pinch-hitting for starting pitcher Shane Reynolds. That was Wood's 19th punchout (the previous NL record was held by David Cone, Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton). Houston's final batter, Bell, flailed at three straight outside fastballs, ending the game and giving Wood his record-setting 20th strikeout in 2-0 Cubs victory. It also turned a spectacular eight-inning, 10-strikeout performance by Reynolds into a footnote.
Clark: Derek buckled and was just like, "What the heck is this?"
Bagwell: I was [strikeout] No. 21 standing on deck if they didn't catch the ball when Derek struck out. It's the most dominant game I've ever seen in person.
Brown: In this one, there was no ball hit hard. There was nothing. There was one hit batter, one sacrifice bunt and just a ton of strikeouts. Certainly, the best game I've ever seen. Even the no-hitters -- most no-hitters have one or two balls at least hit hard and right at somebody. This didn't have that.
Alou: Of course, I was embarrassed that day, but after that, I didn't mind. Now, I look back, I don't mind being part of history. He's a great guy. I got to be Kerry's teammate for three years in Chicago. I'm happy for him.
Riggleman: As long as Wrigley's been there, it was probably the greatest game pitched ever at that stadium.
Meals: You can tell when guys are dialed in. It's fun to work those games. You're not trying to keep score, but it's fun when guys are on.
Wood: It definitely was a defining moment. For me, it showed me that I belonged here, it's not a fluke that I'm here, I deserve to be here. I can compete at this level. It set the bar for the rest of my career, the rest of my outings after that.
CHAPTER 6: THE AFTERMATH
As soon it was over, talk of Wood's performance was everywhere. Bagwell spent the next day -- an off-day -- golfing with teammates. He noticed a group of men watching a replay of the game on television at the clubhouse bar. And they were laughing -- hard.
Bagwell: These guys are laughing and laughing, saying things like, "Look at that. Oh God. Look at that." One dude looks over at me and stops laughing and says, "Oh. You're Jeff Bagwell, aren't you?" And I said, "It's OK. I've never seen anything like that. And I'm not mad." [Wood] was just that good.
Alou: I went to the Bulls' playoff game that night. I kept hearing about it: "That kid's pretty good? The kid's pretty good?" I'm like, "Come on man, he just struck out 20. I just wanted to watch the Bulls." But people kept asking about Kerry Wood.
Biggio: I was in the cab with Ausmus the next day, and the cab driver had talk radio on. The host says, "The Astros' hitters were so bad. I don't even know what the guy's name was. He swung at a curveball that hit the grass -- not even the dirt." I said to Brad, "That was you, right?"
Ausmus: I thought it was a fastball. If it was a fastball, I would have hit it perfectly. It just happened to be a breaking ball.
From that day on, the media spotlight on Wood was intense.
Wood: I don't know if anybody could be ready for that. I had hype coming out of high school and was used to some of the media attention, but not on the national scale of what was happening. Everything I did became really important, which was weird for me at the time. I was just a private guy, and I just wanted to come to work and go play baseball.
He did, for 14 years. Fighting through injuries and surgery, Wood later transitioned into a closer, and he finished his career in 2012 with an 85-75 record, a 3.67 ERA and 1,582 strikeouts in 1,380 innings. Wood credits his start against the Astros on May 6, 1998, in playing a large role in shaping him through his Major League journey, and it was also a springboard to him winning the 1998 NL Rookie of the Year Award, barely edging out Todd Helton. Wood finished that season with 13-6 record with a 3.40 ERA and an incredible 233 strikeouts in 166 2/3 innings for a league-leading 12.6 K/9.
Wood: When you're a young kid, you can make a lot of mistakes, but I had a ton of media attention. At the time, it was a bad thing, but it ended up being a good thing, because it kept me in line.
As Wood's career progressed, reminders of his epic start vs. the Astros crept up from time to time. He later became teammates with Gutierrez, who joined the Cubs for two seasons in 2000 and '01. The two had several joking conversations about the game, mainly because Gutierrez brought up his hit -- often.
Gutierrez: The first day of Spring Training, when we met, he looked at me, I looked at him. I said, "I know you remember me, right?" He said, "Get out of here. I don't know what you're talking about." We hit it off from Day 1. I love him to death. Once I became his teammate, I bothered him darned near every day about [the hit]. I told him he should have never thrown me an 0-2 curveball. I threw daggers at him, and he would chase me around the clubhouse. I said, "You'll never forget my name for the rest of your life."