“What even is that pitch?” A oral history of Kerry Wood’s 20K day – Chicago Cubs blog

Editor's note – This story first ran May 6, 2018 in honor of Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout anniversary.

It was a dull day. It was actually a dull day. It was overcast and rainy when the Cubs hosted the festivities. Houston AstrosAn early May matinee. The school was still in session so only 15,758 fans attended. It is not known how many people stayed to witness history as it poured throughout the day.

That didn’t stop 20-year-old Kerry Wood from a magical performance. He had the greatest game score in baseball history with a pitching record of 9 IP, 1 H., 0BB, 20 K's. The Astros called him unhittable for his dynamic fastball and slurve. Here are the memories of Wood and others. Current Cubs pitchers Jon LesterAnd Kyle HendricksWatch the highlights from the most exciting game at Wrigley Field history and let your fellow Wrigley Field fans add their comments. It was May 6, 1998, 20 years ago.

Kerry Wood “I remember specifically having low energy that day. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was the overcast skies or a day-game. I was dragging at my ballpark. It wasn’t jumping right away, the way I wanted. I felt sluggish.”

Cubs manager Jim Riggleman: “I do remember him saying that after the fact. He didn’t have a great warm-up.”

Astros second baseman Craig Biggio: “Our minor league [scout] said, ‘Hey, he has a good fastball, OK curve and be patient with him.’ We watched him warm up, and it was like, ‘OK, no big deal.’ Then the game started, and the kid put on his Superman costume, and the next thing you know, he struck 20 of us out.”

Wood: “I was all over the place in warm-ups. I was unpredictable. Every pitch in the bullpen was erratic. I was getting another ball, either by throwing it to the screen or bounce it in. I didn’t throw one strike. The first pitch of the game, it didn’t change. I hit [plate umpire]Jerry Meals wearing the mask. I didn’t have the feel.”

Plate umpire Jerry Meals: “To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever had that happen again. It’s the first pitch of the game, so things start going through my head. Is there something that I should address? Is there bad blood? How can you get so excited about the first pitch? I don't know what the hell is happening here.

Wood: “I went to 2-0 on Craig Biggio, then struck out the side. I was astonished at my surprise. After the first I felt great, but I had zero of those feelings warming up.”

Biggio: “He had a nice, smooth delivery. The ball was electrifying. It was easy to relate. [Craig] Kimbrel. He’s got that ball where he throws it and it pops in the glove, and it’s heavy and hard and firm. He was on.”

Jon Lester: “In that game, it wasn’t a lot of long at-bats. There are a lot swings-and misses, takes, and foul balls. Today, we all know the spin rate and other stuff. That would have been a plus-plus. That’s the biggest thing, the way those pitches broke.”

After four innings, Wood had eight strikeouts. The Astros' shortstop Ricky Gutierrez hit Wood in the infield, ending any chance of a no-hitter. However, Wood was still locked in and focused on the final game.

Wood: “Bagwell’s second at-bat, I know I get to 3-1, and I throw hook-hook and buckle him back-to-back. After that, I knew I had a chance to finish this.”

Meals: “He had everything working. He had a great-hitting team that was completely baffled. They were flailing on the breaking stuff and couldn’t catch up to the fastball.”

Kyle Hendricks: “The movement on his pitches was incredible. Is that pitch even possible? [the slurve]? I don’t know how you snap that off. No idea. You can see the spin being created. Those guys didn’t have a chance.”

Biggio: “We didn’t have the technology they have today. You now know everything about a man. You know everything about a guy, including how hard he throws and other details. You got everything. And you can go look at your at-bats as the game is going on.”

Lester: “The only information you had back then was facing the guy.”

Riggleman: “Somewhere around his 13th strikeout, [third-base coach] Tom Gamboa said, ‘You know how many strikeouts he has?’ It became interesting. … I didn’t know 20 was a record.”

Meals: “The weather turned crappy in the sixth. The grounds crew did a good job.”

Wood: “My goal was not to walk anyone. That’s what I heard my whole minor league career and my short time in the big leagues: Just don’t walk anyone. In a 1-0 game, I was just focusing on not putting the tying run on base.”

Biggio: “We’re one swing away from tying the game, so we’re not thinking about the strikeouts. But when you go out there, you see the fans throwing up the K’s, and you’re like, ‘Holy shoot, how many strikeouts does this guy have?' You begin to count them. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 … I think they ran out of K’s.”

Wood scored five runs in one stretch.

Wood: “With two strikes maybe they thought I was trying to trick them with off-speed, so a lot of those fastballs were them not pulling the trigger, thinking off-speed.”

Hendricks: “The fastball is obviously electric. It rides up in the zone. It breaks a few balls for a lefty and it rides up in the zone. It would have been incredible to see the spin rate. It makes it more fun to watch, without all those stats on the screen.”

Biggio: “We had 102 wins that year. This was no weak lineup. He carved us up like we didn’t belong there.”

Riggleman: “This is probably a little bit of an indictment of everyone that managed in that period, I was probably thinking like 135 pitches for him. He has to finish this thing.

“I didn’t want to take him out with men on base. That’s when you give life to the other club. Perhaps at the end. I’m not sure we ever got anyone up though.”

Wood: “Being from Texas and following Roger Clemens, I knew he had the major league record, but it’s not one of those numbers you think is attainable. … I didn’t know how hard I was throwing or how many pitches I had thrown. We didn’t have that back then.”

Riggleman: “There were games [in which]After six to seven [innings]He had 13 to 14 strikeouts and the pitch count was high. We would take him out. He would boo me for taking him out. Later, when he was hurt, it was, ‘Oh, you pitched him too much.’”

Wood: “In the seventh inning, I thought the umpires might call it for a moment due to rain. And I knew at that point, if there is a delay, I’m done. I remember thinking, ‘Don’t call that game.'”

The Cubs scored an insurance hit in the eighth to take a 2-0 advantage. Wood had 18 strikeouts, but he didn't know if he was eligible for a record.

Wood: “I remember thinking in the eighth inning I just wanted to get back out there and finish this up. We scored another run and I knew I wanted the inning ended. A young player should want his team to score as much as possible.”

Lester: “That would be so hard now. I don’t know if you’ll see 20 again in the future. Bullpens and specialization. … He was very special. His height and ability to use the levers was amazing. When you think of Kerry Wood, you think of someone special.”

Biggio: “He hit his spots and made his pitches that day. It was just a man amongst boys right there.”

Wood (on getting strikeout No. 20 against Derek Bell): “His first swing in that at-bat, I knew I could throw the rosin bag up there and he would swing at it.”

Meals: “I was thinking about almost calling a no-hitter. The crew chief pointed out that he had 20 strikeouts. I had no idea. I wasn’t paying attention to the fans holding up the K’s.”

Wood: “My fist-pump on the mound was about no walks and completing the game. I hugged [reliever] Terry Adams and say something to him, because before the game, he said, ‘Hey rook, why don’t you pitch more than five innings. You’re killing us.’ But no one said anything about 20 strikeouts.”

Meals: “[Umpire]Terry Tata played first base. He says, ‘You had 19, I had one.’ Because he rang one up on a check swing. That was when I realized 20.”

Wood: “Thirty seconds after it’s over, they bring me over to the camera, and my hands are shaking. My adrenaline is pumping. That’s when I found out I struck out 20 and tied the record. I didn’t have anything to say, though.”

Biggio: “You’re bummed out you lost, but 20 punchouts is pretty amazing.”

Riggleman: “You meet a lot of people that say they were there that day, but it was a rainy day in May. Maybe it was 18,000.”

Hendricks: “And to do it that young. He must have been in one of those once-in-a lifetime zones.”

Riggleman: “[Former Cubs] Billy Williams and Ron Santo were at Wood’s game that day and said that it was even more dominating than Sandy Koufax’s perfect game [against the Cubs in 1965]. They were there at the other one, too. You could make a case, as old as that stadium is, that could be the greatest game anyone has ever pitched there.”

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