Pressbox Notes: Wood's Start

PEORIA -- It seems like only a couple of years ago, but it has been eight since Kerry Wood emerged at the major league level, hurling near 100 mph fastballs and snapping dizzying, knee-quivering sliders.

The kid had smoldering stuff and the Chicago Cubs were going to ride his arm to the Series.

But there has been no World Series and the kid is no longer a kid.

Kerry Wood turns 29 in June, and fans and media are becoming anxious and critical, wondering when and if he will ever fulfill his limitless potential.

As spectacular and as unhittable that he is at times, Wood's career-high in wins is only 14. Defeatists have their worries justified seemingly every spring when word comes of soreness and injury, talk of timetables and progress, throwing towels, throwing on flat ground, simulated games, rehab starts, pitch counts.

The Chicago Cubs' season has once again commenced without Kerry Wood. This time, he is rehabbing from arthroscopic shoulder surgery. On Sunday night, he took the mound for the Class-A Peoria Chiefs in a rehab start at O'Brien Field against the visiting Lansing Lugnuts, now the affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays after several years with the Cubs.

Wood strolled to the mound with his familiar slow gait and his head down. The shadow cast by the stands covered the infield, but the outfield and hitting background were blanketed by the May sun. He toed the rubber, looked in to young catcher Jake Muyco, and would soon begin making a group of minor leaguers look like, well, minor leaguers.

Before the game, starting third baseman Brandon Taylor said he didn't know what to expect from Wood, but offered this about the Lugnuts' hitters.

"They're free hackers," Taylor said. "They swing. If it's a strike, no matter what count, they're swinging."

Taylor was right. They swung. And they missed. Wood's final numbers for the game were five innings pitched, 12 strikeouts, a hit, a walk, a hit batsman, and no runs. He threw 70 pitches, 51 for strikes.

Only three balls made their way into fair territory: a single, a flyout to right and a grounder to first. The stats speak for themselves: Wood was impressive.

The O'Brien Field radar gun had him in the high-80s to mid-90s all evening. The fastest he hit was 97 mph. His leg kick and motion looked smooth and effortless, and he seemed to be at complete ease against the Class-A apprentices.

Wood's first two pitches went for balls and the next three for strikes as he fanned the first batter to open the game. He then struck out the next two men on seven pitches.

In the bottom of the second, Wood started by issuing a base on balls to Joey Metropoulos. In response, the crowd booed in disbelief (how could the great Kerry Wood ever walk a minor leaguer?).

The next hitter, Brian Pettway, took Wood's 0-1 offering and blasted it high and deep onto Jefferson Street but well foul. That ball would be the only one struck with authority against Wood.

He promptly dispatched Pettway on the next pitch for his fourth strikeout. Josh Bell then came up and singled softly to center field. After that, Wood stopped toying around and struck out the next two batters. He again struck out the side in the third on only 13 pitches.

In the fourth, Wood struck out the leadoff man for his 10th K. The following batter lifted a fly to right for the first out recorded by a fielder, and Wood then plunked the next man in the arm with the ball ricocheting on the fly all the way back to the net.

The final out was quickly recorded on a sharp grounder to first that Ryan Norwood could not handle (the ball caromed to the second baseman who tossed it back to Norwood for the out).

An interesting little anecdote about the Norwood bobble and the type of interaction that took place between Wood and the minor leaguers:

Before the game, the players were smoking and joking around when Norwood said to Wood, "I don't want to put any pressure on you, but we've won our first three games and are going for the sweep."

Norwood also mentioned the recent dominance and scoreless streak of the Chiefs pitchers.

Wood asked, "What position do you play?"

"First base."

"How about this," Wood quipped. "Just catch the f-cking ball."

No word on whether Wood berated Norwood in the dugout for failing to comply with his orders.

The fifth was Wood's final inning. He induced a foul out to start and then fanned the final two men swinging.

As the umpire made his call, Chiefs players sprinted off the field but Wood began his familiar slow stroll to the dugout, head down, as the crowd gave him a brief ovation in gratitude.

The attendance was announced at 8,426, which is five or six thousand more than usual. In a meaningless development, the Chiefs won the game in extra innings, 5-3, as Norwood drilled a walk-off homer in 10th.

Another interesting Wood/Norwood nugget:

Before the game, Wood joined the squad for batting practice. He began by laying a few bunts down and then lifting some fly balls to right and center.

In his second and third turns in the cage, Wood popped more flies to right and left. In his final turn, he cranked a home run to left. Then, he took the next pitch and blasted it off the top of the left field foul pole, while onlookers – media, photographers and a few Chiefs administrative personnel – ooooed and aaaaaahhed.

Norwood then stepped into the cage as Wood exited. While Wood was being congratulated, fawned over and asked for his autograph in the dugout, no one but his teammates watched as Norwood foreshadowed his game-winner with a pair of bombs to left that traveled even farther than Wood's.

Yes, the hoopla surrounding Kerry Wood's visit to humble Peoria was a touch excessive.

When Wood went to the bullpen to warm up before the game, no less than eight cameras documented the action. The photographers formed a semi-circle around him. They crouched on the ground for dramatic low angles.

Wood meanwhile sat on the bench and manipulated a baseball in his hands. The cameras pointed and clicked away. He adjusted his shoelaces. The film rolled. He stared solemnly to center field. Click, click, click. He scratched himself. They shot, and shot, and shot.

Up in the press box, photos of Wood playing long-toss in right field were fetching $125 from the Chicago Sun-Times.

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