May 6, 1998: 20 things you might not remember about Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game
I love stories about cool baseball games or historic moments, but more than that, I like learning — or relearning — things about the event that aren’t necessarily the main point, the stuff most people have long forgotten.
Most baseball fans remember Kerry Wood’s masterful 20-strikeout performance against the Astros on May 6, 1998, or at least know about it because it was a historic day at Wrigley as Wood became just the second pitcher in history to fan 20 batters in a nine-inning game. (The other pitcher was Roger Clemens, who did it in 1986 and again in 1996.)
The finer details of the game make for some pretty cool trivia on their own, too, so I put together a list of 20 other facts about this game that you might not remember or even know. Enjoy.
1. May 6, 1998, was just Wood’s fifth MLB start. He entered the game with a 5.89 ERA, having allowed 15 hits and 12 walks through his first four games.
2. Wood’s first pitch of the game hit umpire Jerry Meals right in the mask.
3. The Astros’ lineup featured two future Hall of Famers in their primes: Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell.
4. Astros pitcher Shane Reynolds also pitched a complete game that day; he “only” struck out 10 in eight innings, while allowing eight hits, but . . .
5. One of Reynolds’ 10 strikeouts was Wood, who went down looking in the third.
6. The teams’ 30 combined strikeouts set an NL record. (It was broken in 2015 by the Mets and Nationals, who combined for 35 strikeouts in a Max Scherzer no-hitter.) Related to that . . .
7. While the wind wasn’t a factor that day at Wrigley, the teams’ 20 combined swinging strikeouts — and 45 total swings and misses — provided quite a breeze.
8. Speaking of swings and misses, Wood had a 19.6 swinging strike rate that day, which . . . wow.
9. The game only lasted 2 hours and 19 minutes. Despite all those pitches from Wood (122) and Reynolds (116), and all those baserunners for the Cubs, the two teams managed to play a full game in what now seems like a shocking display of brevity.
10. Of Wood’s 122 pitches, only 38 were balls. That’s 69 percent strikes.
11. Even though the Cubs were on their way to a playoff season, and even though day baseball at Wrigley has always been a big deal in Chicago, and even though it was a pleasant 71 degrees, the paid attendance was only 15,758. But about 106,000 will claim to have been there.
12. Every player who came to bat for the Astros that day struck out at least once. But . . .
13. Only Biggio avoided striking out multiple times. Given Wood’s dominance, that information probably should’ve gone on Biggio’s plaque in Cooperstown.
14. Wood’s dominance was apparent from the start, but there was never really much drama about a no-hitter or perfect game. He allowed a hit to Ricky Gutierrez in the third. He also hit Biggio with a pitch in the sixth. But no other baserunners.
15. Between the two teams, the first eight batters of the game struck out. The breakdown: seven swinging, one looking.
16. The Astros were never really out of the game, at least on the scoreboard. They even put a runner on third in the third, after Gutierrez’s hit, a sacrifice bunt and a Wood balk. But it didn’t matter.
17. The middle of the Astros’ lineup — Bagwell, Jack Howell and Moises Alou — went a combined 0 for 9 with nine strikeouts. That’s a lot of power rendered ineffective. What? Don’t think Howell counts as a power bat? Well, he did once hit a broken-bat homer.
18. Future MLB manager Brad Ausmus was Houston’s catcher that day. He only struck out twice.
19. Wood entered the ninth inning with 18 strikeouts and a chance to break the all-time single-game record. He got closer when he fanned Bill Spiers to start the inning. But then Biggio grounded out, ruining a chance at uber-history. Hall of Famers are so pesky.
20. Wood’s Game Score — a just-for-fun stat invented by Bill James — was 105, the highest in MLB history. Yes, higher than any no-hitter or perfect game. This is part of the reason why I maintain that no-hitters aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be.
Bonus: Wood’s historic win on May 6 was his only complete game and only shutout of the season.
The rest of the story
Wood made the 1998 Astros look bad on May 6, but they were a heck of a good team. They finished with 102 wins and won the NL Central by 12 1/2 games over the Cubs. As a team, their non-pitchers slashed .289/.367/.453 for the year. This makes Wood’s historic feat all the more impressive.
Wood’s 1998 season effectively peaked with his 20-strikeout game (how could it get any better?), but he maintained that peak long enough to win the NL Rookie of the Year award after finishing 13-6 with a 3.40 ERA and 233 strikeouts in 166 2/3 innings. It was undoubtedly a stellar start to a promising career. Wood then missed all of 1999 with an injury. He returned to form from 2001 through 2003 — even making an All-Star team — but ultimately health issues limited his effectiveness and he left the Cubs’ rotation for good after the 2006 season. He became an All-Star closer in 2008 before moving on to bullpen roles with the Indians and Yankees.
He finished his career back with the Cubs in 2011 and 2012, earning three wins and one save in 65 appearances over the two seasons. Wood’s final MLB appearance came May 18, 2012, when he entered the game in relief against the White Sox and faced one batter — and, appropriately, struck him out on three pitches. Yes, in good times and bad, through injuries and changing roles, strikeouts were always Kerry Wood’s brand.
That’s why Wood is one of the great what-might-have-been stories of recent baseball history. His potential was on full display that day in 1998 as he mowed down Astros hitters with ease and gave baseball fans visions of an all-time great. That’s still where my mind goes whenever I hear Wood’s name — and I didn’t even watch the game.
But even if a player is remembered most for one day of greatness, that time be punched out 20 is about as great as it gets.
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