Kerry Wood

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 52nd homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 52nd homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

In a quirky bit of irony, 20 years before the Cubs got set to play the Reds at Wrigley Field on Aug. 26, 2018, the two teams squared off in Cincinnati as Sosa and McGwire were in the heat of their dinger race.

Slammin' Sammy helped the Cubs end a four-game losing streak on Aug. 26, 1998, smacking a two-out solo homer off Brett Tomko in the third inning.

It was his only hit of the day, but it was enough to help the Cubs to a 9-2 victory as they began a stretch where they won 9 of 10 games.

Fun fact: Rookie Kerry Wood picked up his 12th win in the game, allowing only an earned run in 8 innings while striking out a whopping 16 Reds batters.

Wood only made one more start in 1998, missing all of September that season with elbow soreness that eventually led to a Tommy John surgery.

Glanville: Kerry Wood was ahead of his time

Glanville: Kerry Wood was ahead of his time

In 1995, after my Triple-A season in Iowa, I was sent to Arizona to the Cubs’ Instructional League. It was a crossroads in my career, as Instructional League was usually reserved for younger rising prospects who were just learning how to be professionals. It was not often for those who were 25 years old and a first round pick, like I was, whose career was in limbo.

It was during this six week program where I first saw Kerry Wood. He was drafted in June of that year and to get ahead of the pro curve, he was assigned to the same camp I was in. It would only take watching him pitch to one batter to know he was special.

Not only was the ball coming out of his hand like a lightning flash, but it sounded differently. Maybe it was the sizzle or the pop of the glove, but it was clear that the hitter had little to no time to decide much of anything let alone determine if it was Wood’s 98 mph fastball or his wrinkle in time bender that was coming.

Like many who make it to the big leagues, he was a top draft pick (1st round, 4th overall). But across the board, professional baseball organizations are full of players who were the best somewhere at some point in their lives. Maybe a legend in their neighborhood, their high school, state, their college division. They also had a moment or a game-changing experience that propelled them to greatness. We were all great players in our own right, all coming from another time and place.

But Wood still stood out amongst the best of the best. It was not the numbers, since he had not amassed many by then, it was the potential, the magnetism of watching him pitch, the way the ball came out of his hand. Later, I also faced Wood when I was with the Phillies, and it was like facing time. A moment when doing something great against him would immortalize you or it could work the other way, you would be in the photo marking what he would do against you that could mark a great moment in baseball history. Every time he touched the ball, there was this expectation. Rightfully so.

I am sure that was a lot of pressure on him, battling injuries, fighting with command of his arsenal of “too good” stuff. But he carried it well, especially at such a young age.

Once you get settled into the major leagues, your eyes keep looking up. Your goals get bigger as you learn that the obsession is about the ring. Winning a championship. A World Series. But we all know that this will only be the ending for a select few. Your next best hope is that you may be able to look back and realize that you had created something indelible. Something so good, it is permanent.

Twenty years ago on this day, Wood did just that at the ripe old age of 20. A complete game, one-hit wonder, with no walks, and 20 strikeouts. Everything that came out of his hand, mocked physics, and danced with the gods. I was playing with the Phillies at the time, and even then, the buzz around the league was obvious. What were we watching? Hard to tell because no one could explain the kind of domination he unleashed, the metrics could not quantify it. Even the English language did not have the right words. It was before its time. Language and math needed to catch up.

At the time, I was in my third major league season. Still not fully secure, but on my way. Wood came into that game with a 5.89 ERA. 18.1 IP, 15 H 12 BB 25 Ks. Most likely trying to figure out where his future would go. Unsure if his lifetime of being the king of the hill could run into the uncharted ego-checking terrain in the big leagues. The same thought that all of us have at one time or another when the game was no longer automatic like it had been for the vast majority of our past. Welcome to rookie year. 

Yet this game would stand alone. It didn’t matter his ERA going into the game. It did not matter what hitters hit against him before. No shifting, no pitch framing statistics. It transcended our analytic world and let artistry in. 

There are moments when sport becomes art, when it becomes clear that what a player physically can do is as enchanting as beautiful music or the rising of the sun over Malibu Beach. That day, Kerry Wood was an artist, and he did not make macaroni art with Elmer’s Glue, but he painted one of baseball’s greatest masterpieces. His moment became our moment, the game’s moment. And with the clean lines of his performance, it will forever hang with the best our game has ever offered. A timeless artifact of baseball history.

No matter how many times you watch it.

Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout game is the greatest pitching performance ever

Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout game is the greatest pitching performance ever

The 1998 Cubs season was special in so many ways.

Obviously the historic Sammy Sosa-Mark McGwire home run chase was a huge part of that, but the team's foray into the playoffs also gave Cubs fans a lot to cheer about.

And then, of course, there was also the greatest pitching performance in the history of the game.
Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout game, which he watched in our NBC Sports Chicago studio recently - the first time he ever saw the game broadcast from start to finish. 

It wasn't a perfect game or no-hitter, though it probably should've been at least the latter - there are plenty of Kevin Orie Truthers out there who think the then-Cubs third basemean should've been charged with an error on the lone hit by Ricky Gutierrez.

Since 1908, no pitcher has put up a higher Game Score than Wood's 105 from that day (among games that lasted only 9 innings). Game Score is a metric used to determine the overall effectiveness of a starting pitcher. A Game Score of 100 is incredible and has only happened 15 times in a 9-inning game in Major League Baseball history.

Here's how Game Score is calculated:

Start with 50 points. Add 1 point for each out recorded, (or 3 points per inning). Add 2 points for each inning completed after the 4th. Add 1 point for each strikeout. Subtract 2 points for each hit allowed. Subtract 4 points for each earned run allowed. Subtract 2 points for each unearned run allowed. Subtract 1 point for each walk.

Wood's performance came in over perfect games from Max Scherzer (2015), Clayton Kershaw (2014), Matt Cain (2012) and Sandy Koufax (1965), among others.

Curiously, Wood very nearly had some competition Friday night and the Astros were again involved. Houston pitcher Gerrit Cole turned in a 100 Game Score after striking out 16 Diamondbacks in a 1-hit shuout.

Current Cubs closer Brandon Morrow also came very near to Wood's outing with a 17-strikeout 1-hitter against Joe Maddon's Tampa Bay Rays on Aug. 8, 2010.

The most incredible part about Wood's history-making outing in 1998 is that he was a 20-year-old rookie at the time. 

"I got to watch it on the big screen once and I thought, my god what a slider that was," Maddon said during last week's homestand. "It's incredible. Wow. I mean, I don't know that people really understand how good he actually was. That stuff there is cartoonish. It's that incredibly different. It's understandable why he's able to do that. 

"Great guy on top of it; I've gotten to know him the last couple years. My god, I mean, who's better than him? What stands out [about the 20 K performance] is that's a really difficult thing to do, but when you watch those pitches and how they were moving on that day, it's understandable. At that age, to have that kind of ability, he was sort of a prodigy."

He also did this all against an Astros lineup that finished with 102 wins and led the National League in runs scored.

Houston's starting 9 that day and their OPS at the time:

1. Craig Biggio - .856
2. Derek Bell - 1.062
3. Jeff Bagwell - .812
4. Jack Howell - .549
5. Moises Alou - .972
6. Dave Clark - .337
7. Ricky Gutierrez - .851
8. Brad Ausmus - .565
9. Shane Reynolds (pitcher)

Wood also remarkably did not walk a batter - the only outing he had in 1998 where he did not dole out at least one free pass. He finished that year with 85 walks in 166.2 innings.

He said he didn't throw a strike at all in warm-ups and then threw the first pitch off the mask of home plate umpire Jerry Meals.

Check out the in-depth look at the greatest-pitched game in baseball history above.