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Today in Chicago Cubs history: Celebrating the day Kerry Wood struck out 20 Astros

It happened 20 years ago today.


It really was just an ordinary Wednesday afternoon at Wrigley Field, or at least it started that way.

The Cubs had gotten off to a decent start to 1998 after a 94-loss season in 1997. Entering the May 6, 1998 game against the first-place Astros, the Cubs were 16-15 and four games out of first place, and had lost the first of a two-game series to Houston the previous day, 10-5.

Taking the mound for the Cubs that Wednesday was Kerry Wood, a highly-touted rookie who had made just four previous major-league starts. Famously, when Wood was assigned to Triple-A Iowa near the end of spring training that year, then-Angels manager Terry Collins happened to be asked who he thought would win the World Series that year. His answer: “The Cubs.” Why? Collins opined that if the Cubs had five starters better than Kerry Wood, they’d be strong World Series contenders.

Wood, the Cubs’ No. 1 pick in 1995 (fourth overall), entered 1998 as Baseball America’s fourth overall prospect. He made just one start at Iowa before being promoted to start against the Expos April 12, about two months shy of his 21st birthday. He allowed four runs in 4⅔ innings, then threw five shutout innings against the Dodgers April 18. Facing L.A. again six days later, he got crushed: seven runs in 1⅔ innings. And in his fourth start, April 30 against the Cardinals, Wood threw a solid seven innings, allowing five hits and a run and striking out nine.

And so it was that he stepped on the mound May 6, 1998, taking his regular turn in the rotation against the Astros, a solid offensive ballclub that would eventually lead the National League in runs that year.

I was one of the 15,758 who was in Wrigley Field that afternoon. You can tell by the attendance count that the Cubs didn’t have many season-ticket holders in those days and the 1998 wild-card race and Sammy Sosa hype had not yet started. It was the second-smallest announced crowd of the entire home season.

The game began in partial sunshine and a 71-degree temperature, per the boxscore (and also my scorecard, reproduced below) and I recall it as one of the nicer days of that season to date, or at least it began that way.

Wood struck out the side in the top of the first. That didn’t seem too unusual, especially after Astros starter Shane Reynolds struck out all the Cubs in the bottom of the inning. Wood K’d the first two in the second, and in the bottom of the inning, the Cubs took a 1-0 lead. Mark Grace doubled and went to third on a throwing error and scored on a sacrifice fly by Henry Rodriguez.

Ricky Gutierrez — who would later play for the Cubs in 2000 and 2001 — led off the third inning.

That’s... very, very close to being an error. Most official scorers will tell you that they want the first hit to be a clean one. The ball glanced off Kevin Orie’s glove at third base and went into left field. It was ruled a hit. Had there been no hits in the game and that ball was hit in, say, the sixth or seventh inning, it probably would have been ruled E-5. Steve Stone, who broadcast the game, said in this Tribune oral history of the game that it was an error:

It was an error. It just wasn’t called. It was an out-and-out error. It’s not a debatable issue. But ultimately, that’s the choice of the official scorer. I really believed at the time and still believe to this day that if you play that video in front of all those people involved — and take out the circumstances — they’d tell you it was an error.

That’s how close Kerry Wood came to throwing a no-hitter on that afternoon. The video is above — you make the call.

Gutierrez was sacrificed to second and balked to third, but was stranded. Wood’s strikeout total through three innings: six.

Two more Astros K’d in the fourth: eight strikeouts. A group of fans in left field began to hold up pre-printed “K” signs in red and blue. The Tribune oral history of the 20-K game explains why those signs were there:

... And then this guy Tom Bujnowski shows up with a stack of all the K signs. I had never met him before. He was kind of loud and obnoxious and he kept sort of announcing, “Hey! Who wants to see history made today? Who wants to see a future Hall of Famer?” He was nuts. But you didn’t want to tell him he was nuts. Because he was ripped. Arms like tree trunks. So what else was I going to do? Of course. Give me a K sign.

... There were only 16 K signs. Which on most days would be enough. But I don’t know how it came about at the end of the game, with the last four strikeouts, trying to recruit people to paint K’s on their chests. And I don’t know who showed up to the bleachers with body paint either.

Moises Alou (another future Cub), Dave Clark (a past Cub) and Gutierrez struck out in the fifth: 11 strikeouts. Now, it’s starting to get interesting, with Wood averaging more than two strikeouts per inning.

And just about this time, a light rain began to fall. At that point, it wasn’t raining hard enough for the umpires to suspend play.

In the sixth, Wood struck out just one (opposing pitcher Reynolds, K number 12) and also put another runner on base, hitting Craig Biggio.

Then things really started to ramp up — both the rain, and the strikeouts. By this time the rain was falling moderately, but still there was no move to halt play. And Wood struck out the side in the seventh: Jeff Bagwell, Jack Howell and Alou. The 15th strikeout of the game, of Alou, tied the Cubs’ team record for a nine-inning game, which had been set by Dick Drott in 1957 and tied by Burt Hooton in 1971 (in just his second big-league start) and Rick Sutcliffe in 1984.

Despite all the strikeouts, this was also a very close game, with the Cubs leading just 1-0 going into the eighth. About this time the rain stopped, though it was still rather dark and gloomy, even with the lights on at Wrigley Field. None of that stopped Wood at all; he struck out the side again in the eighth, with the victims being Clark, Gutierrez and Brad Ausmus.

That made 18 strikeouts, with one inning to go, two short of the major-league record that had been set by Roger Clemens in 1986. So Wood had a shot at not only tying, but breaking the record.

In the last of the eighth, Cubs hitters gave Wood a bit of breathing room. Mickey Morandini and Grace singled, putting runners on first and third with one out, and Jose Hernandez beat an attempted double-play relay to score Morandini, making it 2-0.

And then Wood came out for the ninth, all 15,000+ (and despite the rain, very few if any had left the park) giving him a standing ovation.

Bill Spiers batted for Reynolds, and Wood struck him out. The 19th strikeout tied the National League record, set by Steve Carlton in 1969 (a game he lost 4-2 by allowing a pair of two-run homers, both to Ron Swoboda) and tied by Tom Seaver in 1970 and David Cone in 1991.

The K of Spiers was also Wood’s seventh consecutive K, which tied a post-1900 Cubs single-game team record that had been set by, of all people, Jamie Moyer on July 3, 1987. (It was later tied by Mark Prior August 15, 2002. It had also been done by John Clarkson in the 19th Century, September 30, 1884). And with two batters remaining, he had a chance to break Clemens’ major-league mark. But Biggio, the next hitter, got enough of a Wood pitch to ground out, short to first.

And that brought up Derek Bell:

This game was completely unexpected. Wood, a month or so short of being able to legally celebrate this epic game with an adult beverage, had thrown a game with a Game Score of 105, according to baseball-reference, the highest in major-league history for a nine-inning game. It is arguably the most dominant pitching performance in the history of baseball.

You’ll notice in the photo at the top of this post that Wood’s catcher for this game was Sandy Martinez, a journeyman who played for six teams over an eight-year career, and who was essentially the Cubs’ third catcher in 1998 behind Scott Servais and Tyler Houston. He started just 20 games behind the plate for the ‘98 Cubs, yet will always be remembered for catching this masterpiece.

And I’ll always remember being there, the roar of this smallish crowd sounding like a full house, the rain that fell, and the hitters Wood mowed down. Astros starter Shane Reynolds struck out 10 Cubs that day; the 30 combined strikeouts set a National League record for a nine-inning game that still stands. Wood struck out 13 in his next start, May 11 against the Diamondbacks; the 33 strikeouts in two consecutive outings set a post-1900 record that also still stands.

The 20-K level has since been tied by Randy Johnson and Max Scherzer, and those two plus Wood and Clemens still hold the big-league mark. Wood went on to help lead the Cubs to a wild-card berth and he was named National League Rookie of the Year. You also know that the rest of Wood’s career didn’t live up to this promise, largely due to several injuries.

But we’ll always have May 6, 1998, one of the best days in recent Cubs history, and the greatness Kerry Wood showed that afternoon.

Click here for a larger version of the scorecard image below.

And here’s a summary of Wood’s career:

Lastly, there are some quotes from Wood and others involved in this game in this article by Bruce Miles.