#Shortstops: Kerry’s history
“Here comes the hook.”
And with that, a rookie by the name of Kerry Wood struck out 20 batters in one game to set the National League record and tie the major league record for most strikeouts in a nine-inning game. Prior to Wood, this feat had only been done twice before – both times by Roger Clemens. Wood would also become only the second man to match his age in strikeouts. The first such occurrence of this being Bob Feller in 1936 when he struck out 17 as a member of the Cleveland Indians.
On May 6, 1998, Kerry Wood was making only the fifth start of his career. Heading into the game the Astros were 20-11 while the Cubs stood at 16-15. The Astros would finish the 1998 season as one of the top offensive clubs, having scored 5.4 runs per game while appearing at the top of the leaderboard in a host of other offensive categories. Despite the slow start, the Cubs would wind up making the playoffs for the first time in almost a decade.
Wood, meanwhile, had generated a lot of excitement in and around Chicago as a prospect in the Cubs system. This would be the game, however, where he would step onto the national stage. And the cap he wore that day is now in Cooperstown.
Wood would begin the day by unleashing a 98 mph fastball up and in to Craig Biggio, which would wind up hitting the mask of home plate ump Jerry Meals. From there, Wood would settle in and Biggio would end up striking out. Wood would finish the inning by striking out Derek Bell and Jeff Bagwell.
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While Wood is largely remembered as the star of the game, Astros starter Shane Reynolds would not go down without a fight. Ultimately, Reynolds would pitch eight innings, giving up one earned run while striking out 10. Reynolds would finish his half of the first inning the same way Wood finished his – with three straight strikeouts.
The Cubs would break though in their half of the third inning. Mark Grace doubled to left and advanced to third on an error. Grace would come around to score on a sac fly by Henry Rodríguez. That one run would be all the run support that Wood would need.
But there was still plenty of drama. In the Astros half of the third, shortstop Ricky Gutierrez would redirect a hanging breaking ball through the left side of the infield. The ball was hit just out of the reach of third baseman Kevin Orie, who lunged for the ball. The ball hit off the end of Orie’s glove and took a slight detour before ending up in short left field.
Don Friske, who was the official scorer of the game, awarded Gutierrez a hit. That hit would wind up being the only hit that the Astros would get all day. And with that, Wood’s no-hitter chances were gone. Wood would end up getting out of the inning with ease. Brad Ausmus would go down on strikes while Reynolds was retired on a sacrifice bunt. The inning would come to an end when Biggio would hit into harmless 6-3 ground out.
Orie would later say: “Had I dove, and committed to the dive sooner, I absolutely could have stopped the ball. Whether or not I could have gotten up and thrown him out, I'm not sure.”
On the day, Wood would have two or more strikeouts in every inning except for the third and the sixth. With one out in the ninth, Wood had a chance to set a new major league record of 21 strikeouts in a game. But with one out, Biggio would hit into a 6-3 groundout and spoil Wood’s chances of setting the major league record.
With two outs in the inning and rain falling, Bell once again stepped up to the plate. At the time, Bell had been 0-for-3 with a strikeout, fly out and pop out. The crowd was on its feet. Wood began the at bat by throwing a high fastball. Incredibly, Wood was still throwing in the upper 90s. This fastball was too hot for catcher Sandy Martínez to handle and he would drop to ball making the count 1-0. Wood threw Bell a breaking ball which he would swing through, bringing the count to 1-1. Bell checked his swing on another breaking ball. Martínez immediately appealed down to first where the first base ump lifted his fist, signaling strike two. With the count 1-2, Cubs broadcaster Steve Stone would say, “One more curveball and that should be about it.”
And a curveball is exactly what Wood would throw to finish off Bell and record his 20th strikeout.
Following the final out, Wood was mobbed around the mound by his teammates. He had no idea of the history that he just made. He would not become aware of his achievement until the postgame interview on WGN, when he was informed by Stone.
But he would soon realize the magnitude of the event when the cap he wore during the game was accessioned into the collection at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
Nicholas DiGrispino was a 2022 library research intern in the Hall of Fame’s Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Youth Leadership Development