CHICAGO – With one solidly struck ball towards the pitcher’s mound, the collective Cubs’ fan base took a major breath.
Angel Pagan timed his swing perfectly and smacked it right at Kyle Hendricks. With the ball coming toward him at about 94 miles an hour, the pitcher had just enough time to brace himself for the blow.
Luckily the initial impact didn’t hit Hendricks’ forearm but it did after bouncing off his torso. At the instruction of manager Joe Maddon and athletic trainers, Hendricks took his first warm-up toss towards the plate.
He nearly sailed it to the backstop.
“In that particular moment a guy gets hit in the arm and then he throws that first pitch and really yanks it, so I was concerned when I saw that,” said Maddon of the errant first pitch. “And my message to him was, okay, even if you could finish this inning more than likely you’re going to go in, sit down, and it’s going to swell up, you got to get ice on it, you’re probably not going out the next inning anyhow.
“So why mess with it right now.”
The sight of Hendricks walking off did scramble the minds of a fan base that is inherently a ‘Glass Half Empty’ crowd. It’s never good to see your Cy Young candidate who had the lowest ERA in Major League Baseball be forced out of a game due to injury.
But no worries. Reassurance was on its way from the bullpen. Like all season long, Travis Wood was there to make things all better.
“As a bullpen guy you’re always prepared, especially with Joe, for any situation, anything that pops up, so you kind of keep your body and your mind locked into the game,” said Wood.
In the process of doing so he provided a sense of stability to a bit of shaky situation and helped the Cubs put the game out of reach.
He immediately got Conor Gillaspie to finish off the inning which Hendricks could not, stranding Pagan at first base. In the bottom half of the inning Wood surprised everyone by parking a solo homer in the left field bleachers to extend the Cubs’ lead to three.
Despite the fact that Madison Bumgarner, of all people, reached second on an error by Kris Bryant with just one out, the pitcher quietly got the Cubs out of the inning with no damage.
In just about a half hour, Wood brought back all the positive vibes for the team and the 42,392 fans in Wrigley Field who saw the Cubs take a 2-0 lead in the National League Championship Series with a 5-2 win.
“When he goes out there to play even in the tightest situation, he’s very comfortable with it,” said Maddon of Wood – who has been someone the team has leaned on a few times this season.
On May 30th he was forced to come in for Jason Hammel in long relief after the pitcher left in the third inning with a right hamstring cramp. Wood proceeded to throw four perfect innings immediately following the injury in a 2-0 Cubs win.
Against the Reds on June 28th the Cubs found themselves in the 14th inning without a defensive replacement in the outfield. So Wood rotated between left field and the pitcher’s mound for the inning, then came back in the 15th and finished off a 7-2 Cubs victory.
Saturday’s performance came on the biggest stage yet and with the most memorable moment coming not on the mound but at the plate. The 387-foot homer was just the third for a Cubs pitcher in the division playoff era and just the second from a relief pitcher in the playoffs since 1924 when New York Giants pitcher Rosy Ryan hit one out of the yard in Game 3 of the World Series.
“It was a special moment for me personally,” said Wood of the homer, his 8th with the Cubs but first since 2014. “But just to be able to pull off the win and Kyle started us off and the rest of the pitching staff just followed suit to what he was doing and to be able to pull off the win was huge.”
Maddon has faith that Wood could do that not only on the field but off it as well.
“He’s also a leader in the clubhouse. People don’t even talk about Travis, but a lot of guys go to him for different issues. They lean on Travis a lot,” said Maddon, shedding light on Wood’s contributions to the team off the field. “He’s got a great personality as, you know, he’s very calm. He’s the kind of guy that likes to sit on the back porch all winter, that’s what he does.”
While also being someone the Cubs can lean on in the summer and the fall. Maybe Cubs fans do the same too.