Rozner: Ex-Cubs manager Riggleman says Wood's 20 K game best he's ever seen
Jim Riggleman admits that it wasn't until the fourth inning that he realized what Kerry Wood was doing to the Astros on May 6, 1998, at Wrigley Field.
"Kind of a manager thing to say, right?" Riggleman said with a chuckle. "The game was so close that you're just managing the game. It's a 1-run game most of the game. So I'm trying to win the game and see how long we can go with Kerry.
"I probably didn't pick up on it until the second time through their lineup. He was getting stronger and the opposition was looking more and more overmatched.
"By the sixth or seventh inning, it just doesn't look like they have a chance to score."
A Houston lineup that included Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, not to mention Moises Alou and Derek Bell, was having no luck with the 20-year-old Wood, who struck out the first five before ex-Cub Dave Clark managed a fly to center.
In only his fifth big-league start, Wood was unpredictable. He could dominate at times, but was also prone to walks and uneven starts.
Sure, the Cubs knew he was going to be great, but they didn't know it would happen that day.
"He had great spring. We sent him out (to the minors) basically because we didn't want to rush him," said Riggleman, now the manager of the Reds. "Two weeks into the season, Bob Patterson got hurt and we needed a lefty in the pen, so we moved Terry Mulholland to the pen and brought Kerry to Montreal for his first start.
"He was a little hot and cold after he got here, but he showed electric stuff. Then, it all came together on that day against the Astros, a really good-hitting club."
Bagwell, Alou and Jack Howell struck out in all 3 of their plate appearances. Biggio only struck out once, something he called a moral victory after the game, but he was hit by a curve in the sixth.
When he got to first base, he told pal Mark Grace, "Make sure you thank him for me."
The only Houston hit came on a grounder to the left of third baseman Kevin Orie off the bat of Ricky Gutierrez, leading off the third. The ball hit off the tip of Orie's glove, a play he said after the game he should have made.
No one, including Wood, agreed with that assessment.
"When it happened, we all felt like it was a hit. I didn't think there was any question," Riggleman said. "And it happened early, so I really didn't give it much thought. But it was scored correctly."
Grace doubled and scored on a Henry Rodriguez sacrifice fly in the second off Shane Reynolds, and Jose Hernandez drove in the second run in the eighth on a fielder's choice, also off Reynolds, who allowed a single earned run in a complete-game, 8-hitter with 10 punch outs.
In the ninth, Wood struck out pinch-hitter Bill Spiers, Biggio grounded to short and then Wood tied Roger Clemens' record with his 20th strikeout, getting Bell with one final hellacious slider.
One hit, a hit batter, no walks and 20 whiffs (12 swinging) on 122 pitches and 84 strikes (24 swinging), with 3 balls out of the infield. Using Bill James' metric, it remains the highest pitched game score (105) for a 9-inning game in MLB history.
"Really, you would almost have to throw a perfect game with that many strikeouts to have a better game," Riggleman said. "What strikes me is that ballpark is more than 100 years old and it's the best-pitched game in the history of that park.
"Think about that. It's not 30 years old. It's more than a century old and it's the best ever, and there have been some pretty good names to come through there.
"This is my 45th season in baseball and it's the best I've ever seen," said the 65-year-old Riggleman. "We just saw the kid from Milwaukee (Josh Hader) strike out 8 guys against us, every batter he faced. That was in relief. That's what Kerry was doing that day and he did it for 9 innings."
Wood was the 1998 Rookie of the Year in the National League, going 13-6 with a 3.16 FIP and 233 strikeouts in 166 innings, but a bad elbow shut him down in September.
Still, the Cubs brought him back to pitch against the Braves in Game 3 of the NLDS at Wrigley Field. He pitched well, allowing a run on 3 hits in 5 innings, though the Cubs did not allow him to throw a breaking ball in the 6-2 Atlanta victory, as Greg Maddux got the series-clinching win.
The next spring, he officially blew out his elbow and missed the '99 season after Tommy John surgery.
"We knew he had a bad elbow in high school. We knew that when we drafted him," Riggleman said. "But he was so dominating in Texas high school baseball, which is as good as it gets.
"Years later, a lot of people with bad elbows were drafted and teams knew they would need Tommy John. I don't think we had that planned, but not pitching him was not gonna fix it. The problem was there already.
"He did a good job for 5 innings against a very good Atlanta club, but some people wondered why we would pitch him in the playoffs if he didn't pitch in September.
"But he was pitching in September in the Instructional League in Arizona. Our guys said he was throwing 100 mph and throwing well. It wasn't like he was idle. We figured if he can throw in Arizona, he might as well throw in Chicago."
Still, Riggleman struggles with decisions the Cubs made in 1998.
"Kerry had a heck of a career. Maybe he didn't have the one everyone was hoping for because of injuries, but still he had a great career," Riggleman said. "What goes through your mind is, 'Did we pitch him too much?'
"Everyone kind of feels responsible. Did we ask him to do more than we should have at that point in his career? Should we have been more careful?
"If we had been in a losing season, would we have monitored him closer? We were fighting to make the playoffs.
"Actually, I was catching a lot of grief for taking him out of games. No one ever gave me grief for leaving him in a game."
The "Kerry Wood Game" was the coming out party for a team that wasn't forecast to do much, but it became a party of the North Side as the Cubs won the wild card and reached the postseason for the first time since 1989.
"It was a lot of fun. Great group of guys. I was hoping they'd bring back a lot of the guys and honor that team this year," Riggleman said. "That was the most fun I've ever had as a manager and the most rewarding year in baseball for me.
"And the 20-strikeout game is the one everyone remembers most."
Twenty years later, few would argue that.
• Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.