20K at 20: The anniversary of Kerry Wood’s incredible day

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 6: Pitcher Kerry Wood of the Chicago Cubs (C) is hugged by teammates Sandy Martinez (L) and Mark Grace (R) after his game against the Houston Astros 06 May at Wrigley Field in Chicago,IL. In his fifth major league start, he tied the major league record with 20 strikeouts to win the game 2-0. (Photo credit should read DANIEL LIPPITT/AFP/Getty Images)

CHICAGO – So many of these games in the mid-1990s looked just like this at Wrigley Field in the early part of the season- moderate crowd, calm atmosphere, average conditions.

May 6, 1998 figured to be just like that, with showers moving into the Chicago area later in the day that would take out the early sunshine that greeted fans at the Friendly Confines. The Houston Astros, the defending National League Central Division Champions, were in town and, at that point, a step ahead of a Cubs’ team that was still discovering its potential for this 1:20 p.m. start.

That was the case for the team’s youngest star — rookie pitcher Kerry Wood — who would be on the mound for his fifth start as a member of the Cubs. He’s split his first four decisions after making his MLB debut on Easter Sunday against the Expos, showing off his blazing fastball and some signs of what was to come.

Then came that Wednesday. Never would a weekday May game at Wrigley generate so much history.

In two hours and 19 minutes, Wood dazzled the 15,578 and those at home who tuned in when the word started to spread about his outing. He had 12 strikeouts in the first six innings before putting it into afterburn for the final three.

In the next three innings, over the course of 41 memorable pitches, Wood struck out eight of a possible nine batters. All but one of those were swinging strikeouts, including the last one against Derek Bell, who offered no resistance to Wood’s devastating hook of his 122nd pitch.

Wood became the third in MLB history to strikeout 20 batters in a game, with Roger Clemens having the other two with the Red Sox in 1986 and 1996. Max Scherzer would strikeout 20 in 2016, but it’s Kerry that had arguably the best game, considering he gave up just one hit on the afternoon and that wasn’t without controversy. Ricky Gutierrez’s hit to third could have been charged with an error on Kevin Orie, but the scorer ruled it a hit.

During the performance, Wood didn’t walk a batter and only hit one in a 2-0 Cubs win over the Astros, who at that point were four games ahead of the Cubs in the standings.

Wood recently recounted his experience of this historic event to WGN’s Dan Roan.

This was the start of an eventful year for the Wood, who struck out 14 batters in a win over the Diamondbacks five days later. Despite missing the last month of the regular season with elbow soreness, Wood still finished 13-6 with a 3.40 ERA and 233 strikeouts - the second-most in his career. His efforts along with those of Sammy Sosa, who hit 66 homers in his pursuit of Mark McGwire for the MLB record, helped the Cubs win the NL Wild Card, their first appearance in the postseason in nine years.

Wood returned from his injury in October for Game 3 of the NLDS against the Braves, pitching five innings, allowing just one run over five innings. Yet the Braves were too much for the Cubs, crushing the bullpen in a 6-2 win that ended the season.

After missing the 1999 season with Tommy John surgery, Wood returned to play 13 more seasons as a starter and closer, making the All-Star game twice, and finally retiring midway through the 2012 season. There were 86 wins during that stretch, but none like the one that happened 20 years ago today.