20 years, 20 strikeouts: A look back at Kerry Wood’s dominating performance

20 years, 20 strikeouts: A look back at Kerry Wood’s dominating performance

A look back at Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout performance against the Houston Astros on May 6, 1998.

May 6, 1998 didn’t seem like a special day in Major League Baseball. Just over a month into the regular season, it seemed like a random Wednesday. Teams were still trying to find an identity, not fall too far behind in the standings before the dog days of summer hit and just win a few ballgames. Kerry Wood would make it a day to remember with what many have called the greatest pitching performance in history.

Drafted fourth overall in the 1995 Amateur Draft out of Grand Prairie (TX) High School, Kerry Wood did what just about every player does. He worked his way up through the system. Splitting time between the New York-Penn League and the Gulf Coast League after being drafted, Wood posted a 6.14 ERA over three starts, which isn’t exactly setting the world on fire. Call it a learning curve.

At this point in time, the Chicago Cubs were struggling. After going 0-14 to start the 1997 season, they finished 68-94, 16 games back of the NL Central champion Houston Astros, who were becoming one of the best-hitting teams in all of baseball. However, the Cubs began the 1998 season in a much better place. They had a few new pieces in place and after losing their opener to the world champion Florida Marlins, they never fell below .500 for the remainder of the season and reeled off six straight victories. At this time, Wood was still in Iowa at Triple-A but would start just one game there, throwing five scoreless innings, before being called up to the big club.

Kerry Wood came to the North Side with plenty of hype. These were some of the early days of the internet so fans didn’t have access to nearly as much information as they do today but Cubs fans knew who he was. They had heard there was this pitcher in the minors with a fastball in the high 90s and wicked breaking stuff and they were ready to see it for themselves. They finally got that chance on April 12, 1998 as Wood made his first Major League start, giving up four runs on four hits in 4 2/3 innings in a loss to the Montreal Expos (that’s the Washington Nationals for the youngsters out there). It wasn’t the greatest debut but it certainly wasn’t the worst either.

He threw five scoreless innings in his next outing in an 8-1 victory over Los Angeles to pick up his first big-league win but got rocked for seven runs in 1 2/3 innings by those same Dodgers just six days later. He was able to recover nicely in his next start, giving up just one run in seven strong innings, the longest outing of his young career, against the rival St. Louis Cardinals.

With a little more confidence after that outing, Wood came into his fifth start with a big challenge ahead of him, namely the strong lineup of the Houston Astros. They were 20-11 and had roughed up lefthander Mark Clark and the North Siders the day before in a 10-5 victory. Houston had three players hitting .347 or better, including Derek Bell, who came into that Wednesday hitting .403. That doesn’t even include the two future Hall of Famers in Craig Biggio, who was only hitting .315, and Jeff Bagwell, who hadn’t quite found his stride yet at .248 but would go on to hit .304 on the season. It was a daunting task for any pitcher in baseball, let alone a 20-year-old rookie making the fifth start of his career. That 20-year-old rookie made them look like Little Leaguers by the end of the day.

1st inning

On an overcast day at Wrigley Field, the usual 1:20 start time on WGN of course, Kerry Wood had himself a Nuke LaLoosh moment to start the day as he faced Biggio. A wild fastball sailed over the head of catcher Sandy Martinez and hit the umpire right in the face. Was it going to be that kind of day? Certainly not. Wood struck out Biggio with a high fastball for his first strikeout of the day and the march toward history was on. He got Derek Ball swinging at a nasty curveball for number two and struck out the side by painting the outside corner to get Bagwell. K Count: 3

2nd inning

He came back out in the second and continued to assert his dominance, blowing away third baseman Jack Howell with more heat for number four and got his fifth in a row by going up and in on Moises Alou. Leftfielder Dave Clark was finally able to get some wood on the ball but a routine popout to center wrapped up the inning. K Count: 5

3rd inning

After Henry Rodriguez knocked in Mark Grace on a sacrifice fly in the bottom half of the second to give the Cubs a 1-0 lead, Kerry Wood continued his day by facing Astros shortstop Ricky Gutierrez to start the third and quickly got ahead in the count. However, Wood hung a breaking ball just enough for Gutierrez to make contact, a shot that bounced off of third baseman’s Kevin Orie’s glove into left field for the first basehit of the day for Houston. Many still think to this day that it should have been called an error but Wood has actually gone on record himself saying that he thinks it was a hit. It would be the only hit the Astros would get all day, which is why it ended up being a little controversial later on. Wood would get out of the inning just fine (even after a sacrifice bunt and a balk), fanning Brad Ausmus to tack on another strikeout. K Count: 6

4th inning

Once lineups, especially those like Houston had back then, run through the order for the first time against a new pitcher, they tend to adjust and start getting a little offense in. That would not be the case on this day. After getting Derek Bell to pop out to Sammy Sosa to start the fourth inning, Wood jelly-legged Bagwell with a nasty breaking ball and followed it up with strikeout number eight as he caught Howell looking to end the inning. K Count: 8

5th inning

Kerry Wood began the fifth inning with another called strike three, this time on Moises Alou, who wasn’t happy with the call but became the 20-year-old’s ninth strikeout victim of the day, which would be Wood’s career high in strikeouts for about 90 seconds until he got Clark to look at three straight breaking balls for number 10. For good measure, he struck out the side for the second time on the day after getting Gutierrez to look at a called third strike on the outside corner. K Count: 11

6th inning

Brad Ausmus grounded out to second baseman Mickey Morandini to lead off the Astros’ sixth inning, perhaps the hardest-hit ball Houston would have all day, but Wood got back on the K Train with three straight fastballs to opposing pitcher Shane Reynolds, who himself had a very solid outing on this day. Wood made his only real mistake of the day as Houston began their third run through the lineup, letting a breaking ball get away from him and hitting Craig Biggio (who didn’t even lean into this one), who would become the second and final baserunner for the division leaders. While a mistake like that may have gotten to him in his first few starts, Wood calmed himself and got Derek Bell to foul out to Mark Grace to end the inning. K Count: 12

7th inning

Jeff Bagwell led off the seventh with his third consecutive strikeout on the day and was left shaking his head as he walked away from the plate, much like those watching were doing. Outside of a few wild pitches (you know, like knocking the mask off of the home plate umpire to start the game), Kerry Wood was in full command of his pitches and continued the onslaught as he blew away Howell with a high fastball for strikeout number 14. He closed the inning with number 15 as Moises Alou couldn’t check his swing on another devastating breaking ball. Alou slammed his bat to the ground in disgust, a sign of things to come down the line as Moises would throw a pretty famous tantrum in that same ballpark five years later as Kerry Wood’s teammate. K Count: 15

8th inning

Still nursing a one-run lead as the rains came in the eighth, Wood continued to confuse the Houston lineup as Dave Clark struck out for the second time in the game as he couldn’t check his swing on a breaking ball, which only made Wood look more impressive in throwing pitches like that with a wet baseball. Gutierrez was mowed down next with an outside fastball and for the fourth time in the game, Kerry Wood struck out the side by fooling Brad Ausmus with an assortment of breaking stuff, one of which the Houston catcher swung at as it hit the ground a few feet in front of him. That also meant that Wood had now become just the second rookie in MLB history to strike out 18 batters in a game. The other was Montreal’s Bill Gullickson, who accomplished the feat on September 18, 1980 in a 4-2 victory against…the Chicago Cubs. K Count: 18

9th inning

Now with a 2-0 lead heading into the ninth, Wood was just one strikeout shy of the National League record of 19 and two shy of the Major League Baseball record of 20, which Roger Clemens accomplished twice (Max Scherzer also pulled off the feat in 2016). Pinch hitter Bill Spiers was the first to take on Wood in the Astros’ final chance at the bat and while he gave him a little battle, he joined the rest of his teammates in the strikeout column in the box score as Wood got him swinging on a big hook. Following a quick groundout to short from Biggio, the 20-year-old had one more chance to become just the second pitcher in history to match his age with the number of strikeouts in a game (Bob Feller had 17 at 17…because of course he did).

Naturally, it was the NL’s leading hitter, Derek Bell, who had the chance to ruin the fun but just like everyone else on May 6, 1998, he just had no chance. Bell’s average had dropped to .394 coming into the at-bat but he could have been hitting .994 that day and he still would have been thrown off. After taking the first pitch for a strike, Bell reached for a breaking ball and came nowhere close for strike one and couldn’t help himself from attempting to swing at the next one. Strike two. Everyone just knew another hook was on the way and it was a dandy. Bell swung right through it and just like that, Kerry Wood had made baseball history. K Count: 20

Here’s a look at all 20.

Wood would go on to win National League Rookie of the Year in 1998 as the Cubs made the playoffs and would play a key role in them getting to the NLCS five years later, leading the league in strikeouts as an All-Star in 2003. But isn’t this usually the “what if” part of the Kerry Wood story? What if his arm had never gone out? What if he hadn’t been worked so hard and thrown so many pitches early in his career? What if, what if, what if? But I don’t want to get into too much of that here.

The truth is that we’ll just never know the answers. Could he have been one of the greatest pitchers in the history of Major League Baseball? Maybe. He had the build, had the drive and certainly had the repertoire. But we’ll just never know. He fought off so many different injuries, had to deal with the fact that he could no longer be a starter (his last start was in 2006), moved to a relief/closer role and became an All-Star in that capacity as well, went to Cleveland and New York and then back to Chicago and essentially just grinded his way through 14 seasons, which happens to be the exact number of times he went on the disabled list, and that includes missing the entire 1999 season after Tommy John surgery.

But that’s baseball and that’s just life. Balls and strikes. Ups and downs. You win some, you lose some. Insert any cliché you’d like to here. Yes, there’s a chance that injuries and overuse cost baseball fans one of the greatest young talents the game has ever known. But for one afternoon at Wrigley Field 20 years ago, 20-year-old Kerry Wood struck out 20 batters and was the greatest pitcher on the face of the earth. And that’s something nobody can ever take away from him.

Where were you the day Kerry Wood struck out 20 Houston Astros? Share your stories with us in the comments section below.

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Ben Holland