- Twenty years ago, Kerry Wood compiled arguably the best pitching performance in history. Our writer almost made it ... but he didn't.
Twenty years ago this Sunday, I suffered my most stinging baseball regret. The date was May 6, 1998, and I was 13 years old. A cousin of mine had a ticket to that day’s afternoon Cubs game for me, and while it was a dreary day in Chicago, it was still an enticing offer. Unfortunately, the travel team on which I played (featuring future major leaguer George Kontos!) also had a game that afternoon. I couldn’t miss my own game, not to mention what I’m sure was a crucial day of seventh grade, to go to a Cubs game. It was just May. There would be plenty of games to go to that summer that didn’t conflict with school or my own baseball schedule.
It turned out, to my everlasting chagrin, that there would never be a game quite like this, however. Not in the summer of 1998, and not any day since over the last 20 years. I had a ticket to the greatest game ever pitched, and I turned it down.
This Sunday, May 6, 2018, marks the 20-year anniversary of Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game, a complete mastery of an Astros team that would eventually win 102 games that year, and, yes, it was the single most dominant performance by a pitcher in MLB history. It was more dominant than any of the 21 perfect games in the modern era, and far superior to any of the 232 no-hitters thrown since the start of the 20th century. Wood may have allowed one hit, an infield single to Ricky Gutierrez, but no pitcher has ever quite matched his level of dominance in a single game.
Nine innings, zero runs, one hit, zero walks, one hit by pitch (Craig Biggio, obviously), 20 strikeouts, and countless helpless looks and hopeless swings from what was a truly elite offense. The famed sabermetrician Bill James developed a metric called game score to compare individual pitching performances on an apples-to-apples basis. The highest possible game score is 114. Wood’s 20-strikeout game earned him a 105, the highest score ever for a nine-inning game. By comparison, Max Scherzer’s 17-stirkeout no-hitter against the Mets in 2015 produced a game score of 104. The highest game score for a perfect game is 101, shared by Sandy Koufax (1965) and Matt Cain (2012).
It rained in large parts of the Chicagoland area for much of the day on which Wood became a legend. The skies looked menacing above Wrigley Field for most of the afternoon, but the rain, at least the heavy stuff, held off, allowing the Cubs and Astros to wrap up their brief two-game series. The Astros were already one of the best teams in the league that season behind an offense headlined by Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Derek Bell and Moises Alou. Just the day before, they scored 10 runs on 11 hits, taking the first game of the series at Wrigley. Wood, in the fifth start of his career, would be facing a team that would finish that season in the top five in runs, batting average and OBP.
The weather, coupled with the afternoon start on a Wednesday in May, created an interesting atmosphere at Wrigley. The official attendance for the game, according to Baseball-Reference, was 15,758. That turned out to be the lowest mark of the season at Wrigley, just one of the quirks of the game that have been lost to the lore surrounding it. Another? While the dam in the skies held strong during the game, it broke with a vengeance after it. The game the following day at Wrigley against the Giants was postponed.
Wood started the game by striking out the side—Biggio, Bell and Bagwell—in the first. He struck out the first two batters in the second, Jack Howell and Moises Alou, before someone finally made contact, with Dave Clark flying out to center to end the inning.
Right from the start, it was clear that Wood, a top-flight prospect in his rookie season, had his best stuff. He was the fourth overall pick three years earlier and a consensus top-five prospect in baseball going into 1998 for a reason. When Wood was on, his stuff was as good as the league had ever seen. And he was on this day. His fastball was sitting in the high-90s. His curveball and slider were both breaking cartoonishly, one from 12-to-6, and the other from 1-to-7. The difference in movement and speed on Wood’s breaking balls meant that the Astros hitters couldn’t zone in on either one.
You can watch the full game. All you need to watch, though, is the first inning to see everything that Wood had working. Look at the strike threes to Biggio, Bell and Bagwell. Biggio is wildly late on a fastball. Bell misses a nasty curveball by about a foot. Bagwell stands frozen on a fastball spotted expertly on the outside corner. The top of the first lasted four minutes and 10 seconds, and that’s all it took for Wood to put the Astros, and history, on notice.
The Cubs got the only run they would need in the bottom of the second. Mark Grace led off the inning with a double, and advanced to third on an error by Clark in left. Henry Rodriguez followed with a sacrifice fly, putting the Cubs ahead 1-0. They wouldn’t score again until the eighth inning.
The Cubs offensive futility is part of what made this such a dominant performance by Wood. The game felt like a blowout in retrospect, but the result was never well in hand. Shane Reynolds threw a gem for the Astros, allowing two runs—one earned—on eight hits with 10 strikeouts in eight innings. On many other days, he would have been the story. He just happened to run into history.
Wood returned to the mound in the top of the third with the lead. It was then that he gave up Houston’s lone hit of the game on what would come to be one of the most controversial scoring decisions in Cubs history. Ricky Gutierrez hit one of Wood’s few not-so-sharp curveballs into the hole between third and short, where it deflected off Kevin Orie’s glove and into short left field. No matter the hindsight that came later, the official scorer at Wrigley Field that day did not hesitate in the moment, scoring it a hit.
While much of the debate has centered on Wood’s potential no-hitter, the much more interesting hypothetical is this: What if Orie made the play? Not only does that turn the potential no-hitter into a potential perfect game, but, in that scenario, Reynolds is not in a position to lay down a sacrifice bunt two hitters later. Instead, he’s forced to swing away, and now we could be celebrating the anniversary of Wood’s 21-strikeout game, which would give him sole possession of the record. Anyway, back to reality.
After getting just one K in the third inning, Wood turned the jets back on in the fourth. He fanned two batters that frame, then sent down the side with strikeouts in the fifth. The Astros managed to put a couple balls in play in the sixth, but Wood, again, struck out the side in the seventh and the eighth, going into the ninth inning with 18 strikeouts.
Bill Spiers pinch-hit for Reynolds leading off the ninth, which had to be one of the most impossible pinch-hitting assignments in MLB history. Wood got ahead of him 1-2, and then put him away with a slider that literally came closer to hitting Spiers than he came to hitting it, which you can see by jumping ahead to the 2-hour, 4-minute mark in the video above. Strikeout No. 19 tied the NL record, previously owned by Tom Seaver.
Biggio—of course it was Biggio—ended Wood’s run at knocking Roger Clemens out of the history books for sole possession of the single-game strikeout record. After laying off a curveball away, he grounded out to shortstop Jeff Blauser on a fastball. With Bell coming up, Wood would have to settle for a shot at tying the MLB record.
I’m not sure a hitter in MLB history has been more defeated before stepping into the box than Bell was here. This at-bat was the textbook definition of swing mode. He missed those three breaking balls by a collective 10 feet, and it might as well have been 100 feet. Wood celebrated with an understated fist pump, as though he were the only person at Wrigley Field who did not realize what he just accomplished.
When I think back to that game, the fist pump is one of the indelible images that immediately jumps to mind, along with the fans in various No. 34 jerseys—from Hakeem Olajuwon to Charles Barkley to Shaquille O’Neal—holding up K-signs in the bleachers; Sandy Martinez spending most of the game in the splits; Bagwell’s sheer helplessness as he walked back to the dugout with his bat in his hands three times; and Grace’s unabashed joy as he arrives at the mound to mob his 20-year-old teammate. I also, unfortunately, think about my own regret at having decided to play baseball instead of watching it that day. So, what happened in my game?
We got rained out.