Cubs Classics: Kerry Wood’s 20K game
It was just another overcast May afternoon in the early spring of the 1998 season. The Chicago Bulls were putting the finishing touches on their second “three-peat” championship, which was the sports news dominating the newspaper and electronic media headlines. Legendary superstar Michael Jordan helped bring home the Bulls’ sixth championship in eight years as part of his farewell to the city and the franchise.
Rookie right-hander Kerry Wood was expected to begin the ’98 campaign in the minor leagues. An injury to a key pitcher shifted things around.
“We had Terry Mulholland as our left-handed starter, but when (LHP) Bob Patterson got hurt, our bullpen needed Mulholland,” said then-Cubs manager Jim Riggleman. “We had to bring Kerry up at that point.”
On May 6, Wood — still six weeks short of his 21st birthday — was making his fifth start of the season in front of a sparse crowd at Wrigley Field. “Kid K” was coming off of his best major-league performance having gone 7 innings while striking out 9 St. Louis Cardinals hitters in an 8-3 victory.
“Kerry had so much hype that we all expected him to be successful right away,” first baseman Mark Grace said. “There were high expectations by the players and organization.”
Wood, the team’s No. 1 draft pick in the 1995 June amateur draft, was highly touted as possibly the next coming of Roger Clemens or Randy Johnson. That premise noted, nobody had an inkling about what was to happen on that fateful day in front of only 15,758 fans.
Wood — carrying a 2-2 record and 5.89 ERA — etched his name into the history books, striking out 20 Houston Astro batters in what many still say was the most dominant pitching performance in baseball history.
“We had heard this young kid from Texas threw hard,” Astros slugger Jeff Bagwell told MLB.com. “But whatever, we had a good team back then. You hear things, ‘oh look, this guy’s going to come up. Great, he’s the greatest, OK. Then you see him get this guy and this guy and this guy.”
Wood took the hill in the top of the 1st and 14 pitches later, he had struck out all three ‘Killer B’s’: Craig Biggio, Derek Bell and Bagwell. Biggio and Bell went down swinging and Bagwell took a fastball for called Strike 3. The game later ended with Wood striking out the final two batters to tie the record. Bell was his 20th victim, waving helplessly at a curveball.
It took Wood all of 2 hours, 19 minutes and 122 pitches to make history after just missing a no-hitter. In the top of the 3rd inning, shortstop Ricky Gutierrez hit a hard grounder between short and third base and the ball glanced off of third baseman Kevin Orie’s glove. Official scorer Don Friske ruled it a hit. Keep in mind that it was only the 3rd inning, so nobody in the press box that I remember beefed much until later when it became obvious that history was in the making. Gutierrez later became a teammate of Wood’s and often teased him about throwing a curveball instead of a 99 mph heater.
The game is still considered the most dominant pitching performance in baseball history by many observers of the sport. Clemens struck out 20 a second time and Johnson also fanned 20 plus Max Scherzer did the same in 2016.
“Literally from the 4th inning on, I felt like I was in the backyard playing a Wiffle ball game,” Wood told the Chicago Tribune on the 20th anniversary of the event. “And I was just trying to make guys look silly.”
The season was a good one for Wood (13-6 record) and the team. The Cubs went on to win 90 games, including a Game 163 against San Francisco moving into the playoffs as the Wild-Card entry.
However, everything changed for Wood when he injured his elbow and missed the last month of the season. The aggressive young pitcher made the mistake of trying to come back in the third game of the NLDS against Atlanta that fall. The 5-inning outing would prove to be too much too soon. In the first spring training game of 1999 in Tempe, Ariz., Wood uncorked his first pitch at 99 mph, sending it high into the screen. The 21-year-old phenom who was named National League Rookie of the Year in 1998, had torn the ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm and did not pitch again until the 2000 season.
The most dominant game in baseball history? Certainly the best and most impressive that I have seen in my 40 years of baseball coverage. Oh, and by the way, he struck out 13 in his next start. The 33 strikeouts in two games still stand as an all-time record.
Bruce Levine is a contributor to Marquee Sports Network and a baseball analyst for 670 The Score.