Why you should care
Because this performance knocked it out of the park.
Baseball players have a word for it: filthy. There are wicked curveballs, nasty cutters and hard sliders, but on May 6, 1998, none of those adjectives could do justice to the balls exploding out of the right hand of Chicago Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood. The 20-year-old rookie’s pitches were just filthy. Dirty, stinking good. Seasoned big leaguers looked like overmatched Little Leaguers batting against a baby-faced teenager with stubble growing from his chin. Wood would send 20 Houston Astros back to the dugout that day, tying a major league record for strikeouts in what many experts consider the most dominating pitching performance in baseball history.
It was an unlikely day for making history. Going into that game — just the fifth start of his young career — Wood had a 5.89 career ERA and had never even thrown a complete game since being taken as the Cubs’ No. 1 pick in 1995. Wood was also facing the league’s top offense in the Astros and a team that would go on to win 102 games that season.
Still, it was clear from the start to the 15,000-plus people at Wrigley Field in Chicago on that overcast afternoon that the highly touted flamethrower from Texas was firing on all cylinders. Wood’s exploding slider, devastating curveball and scorching fastball, clocked at up to 100 mph, were all working. “I had never seen anything like the way Wood’s ball was breaking that day,” says Darrell Horwitz, the host of the Sunday Sports Shootout on WLUW Radio in Chicago, who remembers a crowd gathering around the television at his work to watch Wood’s heroics. “It was like there was a repellent on the ball making it miss the bat.”
It’s not a collaboration; it’s an execution.
Wood threw 122 pitches, 84 for strikes. He struck out the side in four innings on the way to his 20 strikeouts, a feat that only two other pitchers, Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson, have accomplished, and not in such dominating fashion. The Astros managed just two base runners — the result of a hit batsman and a weak ground ball in the third inning that hit off the outstretched glove of Cubs third basemen Kevin Orie and which easily could have been scored an error.
According to the Game Score method used by legendary analyst Bill James, Wood’s performance was the best nine-inning game ever pitched. James himself calling it the “the most impressive game ever.” Why? Because even though a perfect game or no-hitters look better in the box score than Wood’s gem, such performances usually entail both more luck and more help from one’s teammates to accomplish. A 20-strikeout performance with zero walks and only two balls hit out of the infield renders a defense, and Dame Fortune, largely irrelevant. It’s not a collaboration; it’s an execution.
Wood was not without some luck: he benefited from a generous strike zone, and the overcast weather and occasional rain did not make things any easier for the Astros hitters. And, sure, if you watch the highlights of Wood’s mastery above, you’ll see some luck, and a little bit of rain. But what you’ll mostly see is filth.