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‘What even is that pitch?’ An oral history of Kerry Wood’s 20-K day – Chicago Cubs Blog

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Editor’s note: This story originally ran on May 6, 2018 for the 20th anniversary of Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game

It was an otherwise nondescript day. In fact, it was a forgettable one. Overcast and rainy, the Cubs were hosting the Houston Astros in an early May matinee. School was still in session, so just 15,758 fans were in attendance. How many stayed to see history is unknown, as the rain picked up throughout the day.

That didn’t stop 20-year-old Kerry Wood from a magical performance. He produced the highest game score in baseball history, posting a pitching line of 9 IP, 1 H, 0 BB, 20 K’s. He did it with a dynamic fastball and a slurve, which the Astros would call unhittable. Here are the memories of some of those involved, including Wood. Current Cubs pitchers Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks add their two cents as well after watching the highlights in arguably the greatest-pitched game in Wrigley Field history. It was May 6, 1998 — 20 years ago.

Kerry Wood: “I remember specifically having low energy that day. I don’t know why. Maybe it was a day game or the overcast skies. I was dragging at the 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 erratic. Every other pitch in the bullpen, I was getting another ball because I was throwing it to the screen or bouncing it in. I didn’t throw one strike. The first pitch of the game, it didn’t change. I hit [plate umpire] Jerry Meals in 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 I need to be addressing? Is there some bad blood? How do you get crossed up on the first pitch? What the hell is going on here?'”

Wood: “I went to 2-0 on Craig Biggio, then struck out the side. I absolutely surprised myself. 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 electric. I could relate it to [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. You see a lot of swings-and-misses and takes, not a lot of foul balls. Nowadays, you know the spin rate and all this stuff, that would have been plus-plus. That’s the biggest thing, the way those pitches broke.”

After four innings, Wood had eight strikeouts. An infield hit by Astros shortstop Ricky Gutierrez ruined any chance of a no-hitter, but by then, he was locked in and thinking about a complete 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 good-hitting team just 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. What even is that pitch [the slurve]? I don’t know how you snap that off. No clue. You can just see how much spin is being created. Those guys didn’t have a chance.”

Biggio: “We didn’t have the technology they have today. Now you know everything about a guy. What he throws, how hard and stuff like that. 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 start counting them up. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 … I think they ran out of K’s.”

During one stretch, Wood struck out five in a row looking.

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. A few of these breaking balls to a lefty, it goes up and in to him. The spin rate would have been unbelievable. It makes it more fun to watch, without all those stats on the screen.”

Biggio: “We had 102 wins that year. That 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. I have to let him try and 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. Maybe at the end of the inning. 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 or seven [innings], he had 13 or 14 strikeouts, the pitch count was high, and we would take him out. I would get booed like crazy 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 run in the eighth, giving them a 2-0 lead. Wood had 18 strikeouts yet still did not know he had a chance at 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 know I just wanted the inning to end. 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. With bullpens and specialization. … He was very unique. How big and tall he was and he had the levers working. 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 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 was at 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 racing. 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 at that 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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Reports — New York Yankees agree with reliever Darren O’Day on 1-year, $2.5 million deal

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The New York Yankees quickly found a replacement for their bullpen, agreeing to a $2.5 million, one-year contract with submarining right-hander Darren O’Day, according to multiple reports.

The deal includes player and club options for 2022 and is subject to a successful physical, according to reports.

O’Day takes the spot vacated when the Yankees traded right-hander Adam Ottavino to Boston on Monday, a move that cut $7.15 million from New York’s payroll. O’Day figures to join left-hander Zack Britton and right-hander Chad Green as the primary setup men for closer Aroldis Chapman.

O’Day, 38, was 4-0 with a 1.10 ERA in 16⅓ innings over 19 games last year with Atlanta, striking out 22 and walking five while allowing eight hits. While his fastball averaged just 86 mph, his low arm angle creates deception; right-handed hitters batted .143 (7-for-49) off him with one home run, by Boston’s Xander Bogaerts, the leadoff batter of O’Day’s final appearance of the season. Left-handed hitters were 1-for-10.

He became a free agent when Atlanta declined a $3.25 million option, triggering a $250,000 buyout.

O’Day is a 13-year major league veteran, going 40-19 with a 2.51 ERA and 600 strikeouts and 158 walks in 576⅔ innings for the Los Angeles Angels (2008), New York Mets (2009), Texas (2009-11), Baltimore (2012-18) and Braves (2019-20).

He was an All-Star in 2015, when he had a 1.52 ERA and six saves while striking out 82 in 65⅓ innings, but he missed the final two months of the 2018 season with a strained left hamstring and the first five months of 2019 with a strained right forearm suffered during spring training.

O’Day made $833,333 in prorated pay last year from a $2.25 million salary, down from a $31 million, four-year contract he signed with Baltimore ahead of the 2016 season. His wife, Elizabeth Prann, is a correspondent for HLN and CNN.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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George Springer sees echoes of Houston Astros in Toronto Blue Jays’ young core

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TORONTO — George Springer thinks the Blue Jays‘ promising young core is similar to the group he played with that led the Astros to their first World Series title in 2017.

Springer and the Blue Jays agreed last week to a team-record $150 million, six-year contract. He joined a roster that includes young sluggers Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, The three-time All-Star outfielder was 2017 World Series MVP when he played with Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa.

“This lineup reminds me a lot of them,” Springer said, wearing a Toronto cap and jersey during a video news conference. “It is a young lineup but it’s a very talented, advanced younger lineup. From everything I’ve seen, they’re very, very ambitious. They want to win, they work hard. That’s awesome to see.”

Toronto went 32-28 during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, finishing third in the AL East behind the Tampa Bay Rays and the New York Yankees and qualifying for the expanded postseason. The Blue Jays were swept in two games during a first-round series by the eventual AL champion Rays.

“I think they’re right there,” Springer said of Toronto. “When you play against this team like I have, you could see the talent, could see the potential in their lineup, in their staff, in their arms. I think this team is built to win, and I think they’re going to be built to win for a long time.”

Team president Mark Shapiro said Springer was “clearly a good fit” for the emerging Blue Jays.

“His experience will add a certain level of wisdom to our players,” Shapiro said. “He’s been places where our guys haven’t been yet and knows how to handle those environments.”

In seven seasons, Springer has a .270 career average with 174 home runs and 458 RBIs, including career bests of .292 with 39 homers and 96 RBIs in 2019.

Besides Springer, Toronto also has signed right-handers Kirby Yates and Tyler Chatwood in the past week. The Blue Jays have a pending $18 million, one-year deal with infielder Marcus Semien, subject to a successful physical.

“We’ve taken the next step and we’ll see where that takes us,” general manager Ross Atkins said.

Shapiro insisted the Blue Jays still have flexibility to add payroll, likely to strengthen the rotation, but said “the bulk of our heavy lifting is done.”

Springer split time between center field and right with the Astros, but is expected to become a fixture in center for the Blue Jays. He’s also likely to lead off Toronto’s batting order.

“It’s no secret that George is a great leadoff hitter,” manager Charlie Montoyo said.

“I’m willing to do whatever it is they want me to do,” Springer said. “I’m here for the team, I’m here to win so whatever they want me to do, I’ll gladly do it.”

Springer said the Blue Jays contacted him early in the free agent process, putting him in “a very good state of mind” right from the first call.

“When you have a young talented group that’s already in place, it’s obviously very, very attractive because you know what they could potentially do,” he said.

Springer’s contract is the second $100 million-plus deal in team history. In December 2006, center fielder Vernon Wells and the Blue Jays agreed to a $126 million, seven-year contract.

Under new owner Steve Cohen, the New York Mets were said to be interested in Springer, but the outfielder wouldn’t address their pursuit.

“This is about the Blue Jays,” Springer said. “I don’t really have anything to say on that matter. I’m extremely happy to be where I am.”

Springer was more open to addressing Toronto’s interest in friend and former teammate Michael Brantley, who rejoined the Astros for a $32 million, two-year deal.

“I talk to Mike as a friend probably every day,” Springer said. “It’s not my business to ask him all that stuff. I was hopeful for it but, ultimately, I’m happy for him.”



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New York Mets promote assistant GM Zack Scott to acting GM

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NEW YORK — Zack Scott was promoted to acting general manager of the New York Mets on Wednesday, eight days after GM Jared Porter was fired.

Scott was hired as assistant GM on Dec. 23 after 17 seasons with the Boston Red Sox, the last two as assistant GM.

“Zack has plenty of championship experience to draw upon,” Mets president Sandy Alderson said in a statement. “He has been an integral part of our decision-making processes since his arrival. The entire baseball operations staff, including myself, will continue to work collaboratively.”

Scott, 43, oversaw Boston’s analytics along with advance scouting and professional scouting. He joined the team as an intern, became an assistant in 2005, then spent six seasons as assistant director of baseball operations.

A graduate of the University of Vermont with a mathematics degrees, he worked for Diamond Mind Inc. as a developer of baseball simulation software from 2000 to 2003.

Porter was hired by the Mets on Dec. 13 and was fired Jan. 19, nine hours after ESPN reported he sent sexually explicit, uninvited text messages and images to a female reporter in 2016 when he was working for the Chicago Cubs in their front office.

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