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Today in Baseball History: Kerry Wood mows down 20 Houston Astros hitters

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I pick each day’s Today in Baseball History item by scanning any number of historical baseball calendars out there (there are a ton of them). Most days I have a choice of two or three good candidates for a deeper dive, but today that wasn’t really the case.

Oh, I could’ve written about Babe Ruth hitting his first home run on this date in 1915, but really, what can I write about Babe Ruth that you don’t already know? He was a great pitcher. He was a great hitter. He liked beer and hot dogs and chorus girls. It’s all been done.

Today is the day of the Hindenburg Disaster. I’m really fascinated by deep dives into major disasters like that — I’m shocked at how many people actually survived that thing — but that’s not about baseball. I mean, the Hindenburg DID fly over games going on at Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds before turning south and heading to Lakehurst, New Jersey and its ultimate fate, but that’s pushing the baseball connection even for me. If we still have no sports a year from now, I may do it.

It’s Willie Mays’ birthday — happy 89th, Willie! — but we’ve had a good bit here about Mays recently. Fun fact: Mays was named after his father, William Mays. William Mays, in turn, was named after president William Howard Taft, who was in office in 1912, the year Mays’ dad was born. If the 1908 election had gone the other way, The Say Hey Kid may would’ve been named . . . well, also William. Alternatively, If Mays’ grandparents had waited a year the greatest player in MLB history might’ve been named Woodrow. “Woody Mays,” we would’ve called him. I guess? I dunno. I went to Woodrow Wilson High School and hardly anyone called it “Woody.” They just say “Woodrow.” OK, I’m losing concentration now.

So, May 6: the biggest, most obvious thing that happened on this day in baseball history was Kerry Wood pitching the most dominant game in baseball history:

 

Low key highlight of that video was Steve Stone’s sweater, by the way:

 

Anyway, you probably know the details of Wood’s performance. No, it was not a no-hitter. Ricky Gutierrez of the Astros was awarded an infield hit when he hit a grounder that bounced off third baseman Kevin Orie’s glove. It could’ve been an error, but a lot of balls like that are ruled hits, so it’s not like Wood was hosed. It’s also the fact that Wood plunked Craig Biggio with a curveball in the sixth inning, so the perfecto was off the table.

Those were mere details, though. Everything else about Wood’s day was pure dominance.

Wait, that’s not true. He had absolutely nothing in his pregame bullpen session and came out to start the game in shaky form. This is from MLB.com’s Alyson Footer’s wonderful oral history of the game from back in 2018:

Wood: I don’t think I threw any strikes warming up. I was all over the place. Balls were all over the place. I think I actually shut it down early and flipped the ball to [pitching coach] Phil Regan and said, “We’re done. I’m loose. It’s only going to get worse. It’s time to start save my bullets.” It was an ugly warmup.

That part continued — briefly — when the game started. Wood’s first pitch — a fastball — missed catcher Sandy Martinez’s glove and hit home-plate umpire Jerry Meals squarely in the mask.

Meals: I wasn’t sure if I needed to eject somebody right there or what. It just didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me at that time. It was shocking more than anything. I couldn’t figure out how he didn’t catch it. He knew a fastball was coming. He just couldn’t get it. It was like the rest of the game — the Astros couldn’t catch up to him, either. It was a weird beginning.

Wood: I’d gone 50 pitches in the bullpen and didn’t throw one strike, and the first pitch of the game, I hit the umpire in the mask, and I’m like, “Here we go.” It wasn’t reassuring for me.

Things would improve. He struck out the side in that first inning, though it was one of those sort of wild, “it’s a cold crappy day and everyone is out-of-sorts” kinds of strikeout the side things. If you watch a lot of getaway day baseball you know what I’m talking about. Both teams had the day off the next day, the Cubs staying at home and the Astros taking the very short trip up to Milwaukee. The quicker this game ended, the closer these teams would come to getting, basically, two days off. Worth noting, after all, that Wood’s counterpart, Shane Reynolds, also struck out the side in the bottom of the first. He’d notch ten strikeouts on the day himself.

As the game wore on, though, it was clear that this was not a getaway day special. It was a display of utter dominance from a rookie making only his fifth big league start. A rookie coming into the game with ERA pushing six. A rookie, though, who showed everyone both the fastball and, especially, the curve ball which made all the scouts drool when Wood was in high school.

In the second inning Wood struck out the first two men he faced for five Ks in a row. A fly out ended the top of the inning. An error and then a Henry Rodriguez sac fly in the bottom half gave the Cubs the only run they’d need all day.

That Gutierrez single off of Wood led off the third, and thanks to a bunt and a balk he managed to get to third base. Wood wriggled out of that, though, striking out Brad Ausmus and inducing another groundout to strand Gutierrez. It was the only “threat” Houston would mount in the game. From then on it went like this:

  • Fourth inning: Two Ks;
  • Fifth inning: Wood strikes out the side;
  • Sixth inning: One K and that Biggio hit-by-pitch;
  • Seventh inning: Wood strikes out the side;
  • Eighth inning: Wood strikes out the side;
  • Ninth inning: Two Ks, with Derek Bell as the 27th out.

That’s 20 strikeouts for everyone counting at home. A new National League record, passing the NL mark of 19 shared by David Cone, Tom Seaver, and Steve Carlton. It tied the Major League mark of 20, twice achieved by Rogers Clemens. Max Scherzer would tie Wood’s mark in 2016.

But by another measure — game score, developed by Bill James — Wood’s game had no equal.

With game score, you start with 50 points and then add or deduct points based on what the pitcher does. One point added for each out, two points for each inning completed after four, one point per strikeout, points deducted for hits and walks an runs allowed, etc. You get the idea. By that metric, Wood’s game score of 105 was the highest of all time in a nine-inning game. The top ten (via Wikipedia):

 

Whether you put a lot of stock in game score or not, though, there’s no escaping that Wood’s outing that day was incredible. But it also may very well have altered the shape of his big league career forever.

Wood would make 21 more starts that year, racking up absurdly high pitch counts for a rookie. In 26 starts he’d top 100 pitches in 21 of them. He had one start with 133 pitches. He’d also rack up games with pitch counts of 129, 128, 123, 123, 122, 122, 121, 118, 118, 117, 116, and 115. He’d sit out the final month of the regular season with a sore elbow. He returned in late September to pitch in the NLDS against the Braves, but blew out his elbow in the spring of 1999 and would undergo Tommy John surgery.

His 20-strikeout performance against the Astros may very well have been where the trouble truly started. In an interview with CSNChicago.com’s Dave Kaplan a few years ago Wood said he “felt something” in his elbow on that 20th and final strikeout of the game, against Derek Bell.  It’s not clear if Wood ever said anything to coaches after initially feeling something, but Wood would later say that he felt it was only a matter of time before it gave out. I mean, look at that curve — really a slurve — in those highlights above. It’s almost unnatural how that ball moved. The stress it put on his elbow had to be unimaginable. The workload certainly did not help.

Wood would struggle in 2000 but then put up about four and a half above average years as a starting pitcher. He’d post a 3.68 ERA in 138 starts from 2000-2004 and would top 200 strikeouts in three straight seasons, including a league-leading 266 whiffs in 2003. The injuries, however, began to mount, including a strained triceps, a bum knee, and most significantly, a torn rotator cuff. He’d be moved to the bullpen on a part time basis in 2005 and wouldn’t start another game in the major leagues after his age-29 season in 2006.

His time as a reliever was pretty good though, too. Indeed, he’d establish himself as a quality setup man, moving from the Cubs to the Indians, to the Yankees and then back to Chicago for the final two seasons of his career. He finished his career in May of 2012. For his career finale, Wood came into a 3-2 game with one out in the eighth inning and struck out Dayan Viciedo on three pitches, the first of which was a 95-mph fastball and the last of which was a 76-mph breaking ball in the dirt that the White Sox outfielder couldn’t help but swing through:

 

It wasn’t quite as dramatic as Derek Bell helplessly whiffing at that killer slurve in 1998, but it was a nice bookend on a nice career.

 

Also today in baseball history:

1906: The Pittsburgh Pirates become the first team to cover the infield to prevent it from getting wet during a rainstorm, using a canvas tarp on a wet evening in advance of the next day’s game against the Cubs.

1915: As noted above, Babe Ruth — the Red Sox’ starting pitcher — picks up three hits, including his first major league home run as Boston defeats the New York Yankees at the Polo Grounds.

1947: National League president Ford Frick meets with seven St. Louis Cardinal players individually, revealing that he is aware of their secret plan to strike in protest of Jackie Robinson playing for the Dodgers. Frick tells the Cardinals players that he will suspend them if they carry out their plan. They don’t do it.

1962: The Yankees’ Jim Bouton makes his first major league start, shutting out the Senators, 8-0. Eleven of his first 12 pitches in the first inning are called balls and he gives up seven hits and walks seven batters in all. He’ll later describe the outing as “the worst shutout in the history of the game.”

1982: Gaylord Perry of the Seattle Mariners becomes the 15th major league pitcher with 300 victories when he defeats the New York Yankees 7-3 at the Kingdome.

2012: The Orioles beat the Red Sox. The fun part: two position players get the pitching decisions, as  Chris Davis, who pitches two scoreless frames, picks up the win while Boston outfielder Darnell McDonald is tagged with the loss when Adam Jones takes him deep for a three-run homer over the left-field wall for the eventual winning runs. Yes, it was an extra innings game: it went 17. Nevertheless, it marks the first time since 1902 that position players are the winning and losing pitchers in a game.

Oakland Athletics reverse course, will continue to pay minor leaguers

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Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle reports that Oakland Athletics owner John Fisher has reversed course and will continue to pay minor leaguers. Fisher tells Slusser, “I concluded I made a mistake.” He said he is also setting up an assistance fund for furloughed employees.

The A’s decided in late May to stop paying paying minor leaguers as of June 1, which was the earliest date on which any club could do so after an MLB-wide agreement to pay minor leaguers through May 31 expired. In the event, the A’s were the only team to stop paying the $400/week stipends to players before the end of June. Some teams, notable the Royals and Twins, promised to keep the payments up through August 31, which is when the minor league season would’ve ended. The Washington Nationals decided to lop off $100 of the stipends last week but, after a day’s worth of blowback from the media and fans, reversed course themselves.