I’m certain there was no mystery about which game ranked atop this list. So much has been written about this game, including on this site, that I wanted to take a different approach to Kerry Wood’s famous 20-K game, accomplished in his fifth big-league start.
This game should have been a no-hitter.
The ball glanced off Kevin Orie’s glove and into left field. In my view, a good third baseman (and Orie really wasn’t) makes that play. Gutierrez wasn’t really a fast runner (though he did steal 13 bases that year), and likely would have been thrown out if the ball had been played properly.
Now, that in and of itself isn’t enough to take Gutierrez’ hit away from him.
This is, though: Official scorers generally want the first hit of any game to be a “clean” one. That one wasn’t. I’m not sure why that day’s official scorer ruled it a hit, but in my view he shouldn’t have. There’s enough question about that play to rule it an error. If Wood had been working on a no-hitter in, say, the seventh inning and that play had happened, it certainly would have been called an error. But the fact that it happened earlier in the game shouldn’t matter, and in fact, the ruling could have, and in my view should have, been changed.
Jack Wilkinson, a long-time Atlanta sportswriter serving as official scorer for the game, changed a scoring decision he’d made in the first inning on a Nick Markakis ground ball that got past Kris Bryant into left field. There were two out in the inning at the time. While the Cubs were batting in the seventh, Wilkinson changed this call to “E-5,” and presto! Lester’s now working on a no-hitter, because he’d allowed no other hits and just two other baserunners (a walk, and a hit batter).
I’ve seen scoring decisions changed during games before, maybe an inning or two later. I’ve heard about scoring decisions changed when games are over, often reducing pitchers’ ERAs.
But I’ve never seen one that created an instant no-hit bid with the pitcher suddenly needing to record only nine outs to get it. I have watched this play several times and every time I look again, I think, “Hit.” Bryant waved at it, but never appeared to touch it.
Now if that’s an error, the Orie/Gutierrez play in 1998 has to be one, too. Orie actually touched the ball with his glove — KB never appeared to do so, he just waved at it as it went by. Lester eventually gave up a couple of hits in the eighth inning and left the game, which the Cubs won 4-0.
But on that May afternoon in 1998, Kerry Wood didn’t allow any other hits. He did hit Craig Biggio with a pitch with two out in the sixth, Houston’s only other baserunner.
Wood’s 20 strikeouts set the National League record and tied the MLB record for a nine-inning game, which had been accomplished twice by Roger Clemens, in 1986 and 1996. Max Scherzer became the fourth 20-K pitcher in 2016.
More than the 20 strikeouts, though, Wood didn’t walk anyone. When his high school coach called to congratulate him after the game, Wood said he was most proud of that. The one hit Wood allowed was the fewest of any of the 20-K pitchers; Scherzer served up two home runs in his 20-strikeout game.
Wood’s Game Score for his 20-K game was 105. It is the highest Game Score for any nine-inning outing by anyone in major-league history. Here are the 16 games in MLB history with Game Scores of 100 or better. Ten of them are no-hitters. There should be an 11th on that list, Wood’s, thus with a Game Score of 106. But it wasn’t, and to this day no Cub has thrown a no-hitter at Wrigley Field since Milt Pappas in 1972.
But we still have this: Wood’s game was arguably the most dominant performance by any pitcher in major-league history. At least, that’s the way the 15,758 of us lucky enough to see it in person think, and I’ll stick to that story forever.