Monday, May 6, 2013

It was 15 years ago today...

The 1997 Chicago Cubs were not good. They hadn't really been good since 1989 when the Cubs went 93-69 but lost the NLCS in five games to the Giants. In the eight years since that playoff appearance through the 1997 season the Cubs finished under .500 in each of them, save for an 84-78 record in 1993. Better, but still fourth in the last year of the old NL East.

The 1997 Cubs went 68-94 - their first 90-loss season since 1983 and their worst overall record since the 1980 Cubs went 64-98. Ryne Sandberg, 37 years old, played the final season of his Hall of Fame career, and hit .264/.308/.403. A 28-year old Sammy Sosa hit .251/.300/.480 with 36 homers (the other seven regular players hit 58 homers combined) and 119 RBIs, but he also led the league with 174 strikeouts. Their best pitcher was 34-year old Terry Mulholland, who was 6-12 with a 4.07 ERA. Only Steve Trachsel made more than 25 starts.

In 1997 Kerry Wood - the Cubs' 1st Round pick in 1995 (4th overall) - started the season in Double-A Orlando. In 19 starts, he went 6-7 with a 4.50 ERA and 106K:79BB in 94IP. Still, he was promoted to Triple-A Iowa where he made ten starts, went 4-2 with a 4.68 ERA/1.51 WHIP. But he struck out 80 (and walked 52) in 57.2IP. Wood entered the 1997 season as Baseball America's #3 overall prospect and left the season ranked #4 overall. But he was headed back to Triple-A Iowa for the 1998 season, much to the surprise of pretty much everyone who saw him at Spring Training that year.

Cubs manager Jim Riggleman:
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?' But we just kind of had him on a plan.

That plan went out the window when LHP reliever Bob Patterson pulled a calf muscle on April 9and Riggleman shifted Terry Mulholland out of the rotation to the bullpen. Wood had just struck out 11 batters in 5IP in Iowa and got the call-up.

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.

Wood made his debut for the Cubs at age 20 on April 12, 1998. He gave up four hits, four runs, and three walks at Montreal in a 4-1 loss. On April 18, Wood got his first career win when he held the Dodgers scoreless over 5IP, striking out seven batters for the 2nd straight outing. Six days later, the Dodgers returned the favor at Dodger Stadium. Facing 12 batters, Wood retired five - two hits, four walks, and an HBP - and gave up seven earned runs to balloon his ERA to 8.74. On April 30 Wood recovered to hold the Cardinals to 5H/1ER, 9K:2BB in 7IP - the longest outing of his career to that point.

And that's where Wood stood as he faced Houston on May 6, 1998: 2-2 with a 5.89 ERA. 25 strikeouts, sure, but also 12 walks and two HBPs. The Cubs were 16-15 after the Astros took the first of a two-game series at Wrigley on May 5 in a 10-5 win.

The Astros were in the second season of a stretch that we can now refer to as the Golden Years of Astros baseball. The 1997 Astros were 84-78, good enough for the NL Central title. Craig Biggio had just posted the highest single-season WAR in franchise history at 9.4 - hitting .309/.415/.501 and stealing 47 bases. Jeff Bagwell had hit 43 home runs, 40 doubles, and drew 127 walks. Darryl Kile was coming off a 19-7 season with a 2.57 ERA/1.18 WHIP. Mike Hampton won 15 games. Billy Wager struck out 106 batters in 66.1IP.

Following the May 5 win over the Cubs, the Astros had improved to 20-11, 2.5 games up in the division, ready for a day game at Wrigley before their second off-day of the week and a three-game weekend series at Milwaukee to wrap up an eight-game road trip.

It was cloudy and 71 at Wrigley with the wind blowing from right to left field. Jerry Meals was behind the plate, and the game started promptly at 1:20pm.

Wood took the mound to face Craig Biggio. After falling behind 2-0 (with the first pitch sailing over Sandy Martinez's glove and hitting Meals in the mask), Biggio took the third pitch for a called strike, fouled off another pitch, and struck out swinging to begin the game. Derek Bell took the first two pitches for strikes, fouled off the third, and struck out swinging for the second out. Jeff Bagwell stood in and was ahead 2-1 before swinging and missing at the fourth pitch and taking the fifth for a strikeout looking.

Shane Reynolds took the mound for the Astros. Coming in to the game, Reynolds was 2-2 in seven starts, but had pitched into the 6th in each of them and held the opposition to three or fewer earned runs in six of those seven starts. In his prior outing, May 1, Reynolds held the Phillies to 7H/3ER in a 12-5 Astros win.

Reynolds needed 13 pitches to strike out Brant Brown, Mickey Morandini, and Sammy Sosa. All swinging.

Wood came out for the 2nd and struck out Jack Howell and Moises Alou - both swinging - before Dave Clark became the first Astro to at least put a ball in play, a fly out to center, to end the inning. 24 pitches, 17 strikes, five strikeouts. In the bottom half of the inning, Mark Grace doubled to left and advanced to 3rd on Dave Clark's error. A Henry Rodriguez sac fly scored Grace to make the game 1-0 Cubs. Reynolds got Kevin Orie swinging to end the 2nd.

Ricky Gutierrez led off the 3rd inning and on the 5th pitch of the at-bat, with a 1-2 count, hit a soft grounder between SS Jeff Blauser and 3B Kevin Orie. The ball skimmed off Orie's glove and continued into left field. Official scorer Don Friske was adamant at the time, and after the game, that it was a hit and not an error.

CBS Chicago's Tim Baffoe:
Kevin Orie misplayed a ball that wasn’t overly difficult, and I really don’t know what the official scorer was drinking that day.

This one Cub blogger:
Most would agree that Orie's play was tough but should have been made.

Kerry Wood:
I think [Orie] got the raw end of the deal. As soon as it happened, I thought it was a base hit. Maybe if it happens in the sixth or seventh, it might go down as an error. It was a base hit all the way.

After the game, Orie felt terrible.
I'll go up there and tell them to give me an error.

Nevertheless, Brad Ausmus struck out swinging in a seven-pitch at-bat (Dave Clark would also have a seven-pitch AB later in the game - the longest ABs for the Astros of the game), Reynolds bunted Gutierrez to 2nd and a Wood balk would send Gutierrez to 3rd base. But Biggio grounded out to short to end the threat and the inning. Reynolds struck out the side in the bottom of the 3rd, working around a walk and two singles and leaving the bases loaded.

Derek Bell flew out to right to lead off the inning, while Bagwell and Howell struck out looking. It would be the last ball hit out of the infield for the Astros.

The count was 3-and-1, and he knows I’m a fastball hitter. So he throws me a 3-1 slider, then on 3-and-2, he throws me a hook..

Through four innings, the Astros had one "hit" and eight strikeouts. Jeff Blauser led off the bottom half of the inning with a double to left, but he would be stranded to end the 4th with a 1-0 Cubs lead.

Wood was back at it, striking out Moises Alou and Dave Clark on six pitches. Ricky Gutierrez worked a 2-2 count but struck out looking. Five innings, eleven strikeouts. Another lead-off batter for the Cubs, another hit as Brant Brown singled to center, but a Morandini double play and a Sosa strikeout ended the threat yet again as the Cubs have a runner in scoring position with no outs for the 2nd straight inning (third inning in a row with runners in scoring position and no runs).

Brad Ausmus grounded out to 2nd, Reynolds struck out on three pitches and Biggio came up for the third time. And for the third time in the 1998 season Biggio was hit by a pitch (he would be hit 20 more times in 1998). Derek Bell popped up a ball in foul territory on the right side to end the inning. Six innings, twelve strikeouts. The Cubs left another runner - Blauser - on first base, but Sandy Martinez lined out to third for the final out. Reynolds himself, through six innings: 6H/1R (0ER), 10K.

In the 7th inning, with Bagwell leading off, Wood started out down 2-0, got two called strikes before throwing another ball, and struck Bagwell out on the 6th pitch. Jack Howell was up to bat and was able to work a 3-0 count - the first 3-0 count Wood had faced all day. The fourth pitch was a called strike, and Howell waved at the next two pitches to go down swinging. Moises Alou struck out on four pitches. Seven innings, 15 strikeouts. Reynolds retired the Cubs' side in order. 1-0 Cubs after seven.

Dave Clark worked a 3-1 count before fouling off two pitches to lead off the 8th inning and then struck out on the 7th pitch of the at-bat. Ricky Gutierrez and Brad Ausmus struck out on six pitches total. Eight innings, 18 strikeouts, six in a row. Reynolds allowed another leadoff single and, after a Sosa flyout, a single to Mark Grace that sent Morandini to third base. Pinch-hitter Jose Hernandez grounded out to third, scoring Morandini, and then Hernandez was thrown out to end the inning.

By the top of the 9th inning, a drizzle had turned into a hard rain. Pinch-hitting for Shane Reynolds, Bill Spiers struck out swinging. Craig Biggio put the ball in play, grounding out to short.

Mark Grace:
That's the first time I've heard the crowd groan on a routine two-hopper to short.

Sitting on 19 strikeouts, Derek Bell struck out on four pitches to end the game, joining Roger Clemens  as the only pitchers with 20 strikeouts in a game (Randy Johnson would later achieve the feat). It was also a National League record for strikeouts in a game. Wood had thrown 122 pitches, 84 for strikes, 30 of those were looking and 24 were swinging.

I knew I had a lot (of strikeouts). I didn't know I had 20. I didn't find out I had 20 until after the game, during the interview. I knew they only had one hit. I knew I had a chance to throw my first complete game. I knew I had no walks.

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

Biggio wasn't thrilled with the Nolan Ryan comparisons:
It's not fair to compare him to Nolan. The kid's got good stuff, but leave comparisons alone. Today was his day. He had everything working. Plus it was the first time we faced him.

He threw me one pitch that I thought was going to hit me in the face. Next thing I knew, it was crossing the plate, knee-high on the outside corner. How are you supposed to hit that?...That's the most anybody's ever dominated us. 

Jeff Blauser:
I've seen pitchers dominate games before. I've seen Greg Maddux throw complete-game shutouts in under two hours. But as far as a pitcher just being overpowering, Kerry's game has to rank way up there.

Kerry Wood:
It felt like a game of catch out there. It was one of those games where everything you throw was crossing the plate.

And then he went to a Bennigan's on Michigan Avenue. He wasn't old enough to buy beer, but Mark Grace said he'd be happy to sneak him one.
He's too young and stupid to understand what he just did. He's just a baby. He's only 20, for crying out loud. 

Roger Clemens, telephoned Wood to congratulate him before throwing seven shutout innings himself:
It was just a great feat for the kid. I think at his young age it was a great steppingstone for him.

Wood, ten years later:
The strike zone blows my mind. I got some pretty generous calls.

Cubs manager Jim Riggleman:
It was something special. I know I'm speaking for a lot of people in here when I say that's the best game I've ever seen pitched by anybody.

Wood made his last start of the 1998 season on August 31. Riggleman allowed Wood to throw 135 pitches in a 9-2 win over the Reds, and he strained ligaments in his elbow, shutting him down until the playoffs. Wood made one start against the Braves, and when he left after five innings, the Cubs were down 1-0 and would go on to lose 6-2.

Kerry Wood would go on to win the National League Rookie of the Year award, narrowly beating out Todd Helton, who hit .315/.380/.530. Expectations were high for Wood and the Cubs for 1999, but Wood blew out his elbow in Spring Training and missed the entire year. Riggleman was fired after the Cubs went 67-95 in 1999.

Of course the Astros set the franchise record for wins in a season, going 102-60, aided by the Randy Johnson trade that ushered them into the playoffs where they lost the NLDS to San Diego in four games.

It's not easy to be an Astros fan right now. And while it's not fun to reminisce about a complete domination, you can still appreciate the game for what it was. As Biggio summed it up (perfectly):
Total dominance for a day.