(Wood celebrates. Photo courtesy of Associated Press)
No pitcher had ever made a quicker, more incredible first impression than Kerry Wood did in 1998. The Cubs' 20-year old phenom was lifted from the minor leagues carrying enormous expectations. And in just his fifth career start, Wood took on an Astros team that would win 102 games and dominated them for nine innings.
In his complete game, one-hit, no-walk shutout, Kerry Wood struck out a National League record 20 batters and tied Roger Clemens' single-game mark. If not for an infield single that was misplayed by Kevin Orie, and an inside pitch that hit Craig Biggio, Wood would have also walked away with a no-hitter and a perfect game. Instead, he had to settle with a performance that was 99% flawless and 100% brilliant.
"I couldn't imagine ever doing this," Wood said after the game. "It's going to be special to strike out that many, regardless of who has done it. It hasn't settled in, and I'm still in awe a little bit." "I'm going to give most of the credit to the fans. They were in it the whole game. Every time I got two strikes they were on their feet. You can't ask for anything more than that.''
"He was unhittable," said Moises Alou. "That was the best performance I've ever seen."
"It's the best game I've ever seen pitched,"Cubs manager Jim Riggleman said. "I'm just proud to have been there to watch it."
With his blistering 100-mph fastball, Kerry Wood received comparisons to two of his Texas idols, Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan -- whose jersey number he represented. "That's the greatest thrill anyone could be associated with," he said. "Roger is a great pitcher and he's definitely established himself."
Wood struck out 13 hitters in his next start and broke the two-game record for strikeouts. He would win 13 games that year, throw an additional 16-strikeout gem, and won the NL Rookie of the Year award. But towards the end of the year, Wood was sidelined with a sprained ligament and missed the final month of the season.
Wood's injuries became a constant hindrance for the Cubs' success. Over the next decade, Kerry went on the disabled list a dozen times and missed the entire '99 season due to Tommy John surgery, while the Cubs' other great pitcher, Mark Prior, went on the DL eight times in his five years with the team. The only time Wood and Prior both started 30 games was in 2003, a year in which the Cubs set the single-season pitching record for strikeouts. That was the year the Cubs had everything in their favor to go to the World Series. But like Wood's pitching potential, the Cubs season ended in sheer disappointment.