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1995 Draft Spotlight: Kerry Wood

Kerry Wood (Photo by Mel Bailey) Kerry Wood (Photo by Mel Bailey)

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Kerry Wood peaked early. On May 6, 1998, at age 20, he pitched one of the most dominating games in major league history, shutting out the Houston Astros on one hit, walking no one and striking out 20. It was the fifth start of his major league career for the Chicago Cubs.

Wood dominated from start to finish, showing command of a live 95-96 mph fastball and a devilish slider that buckled the knees of batter after batter. About the only surprise was that the Astros managed one hit.

“There’s no one in the National League who has a better arm,” said Cubs manager Jim Riggleman. “That game was one for the memory banks. The best I’ve ever seen pitched by anybody.”

Some believe that 122-pitch game by Wood had something to do with what happened next. He developed a sore right elbow as the summer wore on, and by September was done for the season. He had struck out 233 in 167 innings and would win the National League Rookie of the Year award, but his elbow ached, and the following spring Wood would undergo Tommy John surgery.

The setback was the beginning of a long history of injuries that adversely impacted Woods’ career. He recovered from his elbow injury and showed flashes of brilliance in 98-mph doses, but never won 15 games in a season or seriously contended for a Cy Young Award. Wood won just 86 games over 14 seasons. He retired in 2012, falling far short of the accomplishments once predicted for him.

There was something special about Wood on the pitcher’s mound in high school. Like fellow Texans Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens, he seemed destined to excel like few others in the draft era. Cubs scouting director Al Goldis was among the first to recognize the potential in the young Texas protégé.

“When I first started scouting, I saw Dwight Gooden in Tampa at the same age, and if Gooden were in this draft, I would’ve taken Wood ahead of Gooden,” said Goldis. “I think he’s the best pitcher in the draft, and maybe the best player in the draft. I haven’t seen a guy throw like this in 10 years.

“A lot of college guys don’t have deliveries like this guy. Age-wise, they might be older, but Wood is more advanced than most college guys talent-wise and mechanically. Even though he’s only 17 years old, his poise and mound presence are similar to those of an experienced college pitcher.”

The 6-foot-5, 195-pound Wood generated more buzz than any other high school prospect during the spring of 1995. Throwing from a loose, easy delivery, he had a fastball that projected as a well above-average pitch, both for velocity and late action. As a senior at Grand Prairie High in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, Wood went 14-0 with a 0.77 ERA and 159 strikeouts in 81 innings. The Cubs drafted him with the fourth overall pick, and they expected him to be ready to dominate major league hitters within a few years.

“It would be nice to be in the majors two years from now, and I think I can,” Wood said. “I’d like to get there as quickly as possible, but I’ll do my job however the club wants me to and try to zip through as fast as I can.”

Two days after being drafted by the Cubs, Wood started both ends of a doubleheader in the Texas state playoffs. His Grand Prairie team needed to win both games to advance. Wood threw a 146-pitch, two-hitter to win the opener, and came back 30 minutes later and started the second game, throwing 29 pitches before being relieved after his team took a big lead and won handily.

That was 175 pitches in the same day for a high school pitcher. The Cubs were outraged.

“That’s unfathomable,” Cubs general manager Ed Lynch said. “It’s hard to imagine a coach would allow that to happen, especially to someone who’s only 17.”

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