Greatest Moments, No. 3: Kerry Wood's 20-Strikeout Game

By Chris Rewers on Thursday, April 14, 2011

(Editor's Note: Twenty-eighth in a series recalling the 30 greatest moments in Cubs history.)

My friend, Terry, gave me a call on Wednesday morning, May 6, 1998, and asked if I wanted to join him for that afternoon's game at Wrigley Field between the Cubs and the Houston Astros.

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Kerry Wood is greeted by catcher Sandy Martinez and first baseman Mark Grace after completing his 20-strikeout performance on May 6, 1998 at Wrigley Field.

It was a tempting proposition, particularly, because heralded rookie pitcher Kerry Wood was scheduled to make his fifth major league start. But instead I let the dreary, drizzly weather that day influence my judgment.

"No thanks, Terry," I said.

I've been kicking myself ever since because I squandered an opportunity to witness in person perhaps the greatest pitching performance in major league history.
Wood, who was facing a very formidable Houston lineup that included future Hall of Famers Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, struck out 20, walked none, and allowed just one hit in the Cubs' 2-0 victory in front of a paid crowd of just 15,758.

He became the third pitcher to strike out 20 in one game. Roger Clemens did it twice while with Boston, in 1986 and 1996. Randy Johnson later accomplished the feat, while with Arizona in 2001.

"I've covered over 4,500 major league games, including three no-hitters, and I believe that was the most dominant pitching performance I've ever seen," Cubs radio broadcaster Pat Hughes said. "He was getting his fastball up there at between 95-100 MPH and his curve was breaking like a Wiffle ball. Those Houston hitters didn't have a chance."

Wood's first pitch of the game, to Biggio, sailed over the glove of catcher Sandy Martinez and nailed home plate umpire Jerry Meals in the mask. But after that inauspicious start, Wood was in total control.

Wood struck out the first five Houston batters he faced, fanned the side in the fifth, and struck out seven of the last nine Astros who stepped to the plate.

"It was a completely dominating performance against a good club," Cubs manager Jim Riggleman said. "It was just electrifying, the way he was throwing the ball. I don't think I will ever see a performance like that again ... he was outstanding from the first inning on."

The only Houston hit came in the third when a slow roller off the bat of leadoff hitter Ricky Gutierrez glanced off the glove of Cubs third baseman Kevin Orie.

Wood got all the offense he would need in the second inning when Mark Grace doubled and scored on a Henry Rodriguez sacrifice fly. The Cubs added an insurance run in the eighth after Mickey Morandini reached on a single and scored from third on an RBI groundout by Jose Hernandez.

More than one Astro was shaking his head while walking back to the dugout after being victimized by the combination of Wood's heat and hellacious curveballs and sliders.

Of the eight balls the Astros put in play, only two were hit out of the infield. The heart of the Houston order -- Bagwell, Jack Howell and Moises Alou -- struck out nine times in nine at bats.

"I've seen pitchers dominate games before," Cubs shortstop Jeff Blauser said. "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. He throws heat, but his curveball is so good that you see guys' knees buckling on balls that break over the outside corner."

"He threw me one pitch that I thought was going to hit me in the face," Bagwell said. "Next thing I knew, it was crossing the plate, knee-high on the outside corner. How are you supposed to hit that?"

What does Wood remember about that day, almost 11 years ago.

"I can remember counts, and certain counts I had against guys and certain at-bats," Wood told mlb.com's Carrie Muskat. "I remember warming up before the game. I remember how I felt that morning and what I had for dinner that night."

The 20-year-old Wood celebrated his milestone at Bennigan's on Michigan Avenue.

"I knew I had a lot (of strikeouts)," Wood said. "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."

A steady drizzle had developed into a downpour as Wood - with 18 strikeouts - toed the rubber in the ninth inning. Spiers went down swinging to open the frame. Biggio grounded out weakly to shortstop. Bell waved helplessly at a third strike to end the game. It was Wood's 122nd pitch and his 84th strike.

Wood showed his only emotion of the afternoon, pumping his fist before being mobbed by batterymate Martinez and the rest of his teammates.

"It felt like a game of catch out there," Wood said after the game. "It was one of those games where everything you throw was crossing the plate.

"People are making such a big deal out of this, but I'm just a normal kid who lives to play baseball. I can handle it, but the next time I pitch at Wrigley, I'm sure there will be a lot more fans."

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