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Monday, March 24, 2008

Cubs Preview 3/24/08

We enter the top ten, and thanks to another weekend I have three more to do today. So unto...

Roster Spot 10-P-Kerry Wood #34
Ht: 6'5'' Wt: 220 Bats: Right Throws: Right

Make us proud..

The news officially broke today: Kerry Wood has been named the Cubs closer for the 2008 season. We can only hope that this is the start of the second glorious phase of Kerry's career, where he becomes a superstar once more, albeit in a different role than originally imagined. We all remember Kerry Wood as a starter. The 71 wins, the fastest ever to 1,000 strikeouts, the domination of Atlanta in the '03 playoffs, and of course, the 20 strikeout game. At ten years old I watched with the rest of Cubs fandom as the 20 year old rookie Kerry pitched what I would argue to be the most dominant pitching performance in history. There have been perfect games, of course, which Wood's was not. There have been no hitters, yes, and Wood did give up one dribbling grounder to future Cub Ricky Gutierrez that I still feel should have been ruled an error, but in no perfect game or no hitter has any pitcher approached 20 strikeouts. The only other man to do it is the man who has done it twice, Roger Clemens, a man now slandered with steroid accusations. On that day in May of 1998, Kerry was as powerful as any pitcher could dream of being, and I will maintain until someone does better that I watched the greatest game ever pitched that day. For those of you who didn't see it, here's a brief recap of the strikeouts:

But that was then, this is now. Its really hard to believe that its been a decade since we saw Kerry annihilate the Astros and thought that we were watching the kid who would bring us back to the promised land. A decade in which Kerry has risen and fallen again and again, only to fall prey to some other injury, some other roadblock between him, the Cubs, and glory. There were highs almost as high as the 20 K game, like his pairing with Mark Prior to take the Cubs nearly to the World Series in '03, or his duel against Roger Clemens that same year. But mostly there have been lows: the arm surgery after 98 that kept him out of the majors for all of 1999 and most of 2000. His struggles to rebuild his velocity and control. His loss of game 7 of the 2003 NLCS. His shoulder and arm problems in '05. Then came 2006, and his final arm injury that forced us all into the painful realization that we'd never see him start again for the Cubs, if we were to even see him at all. With his contract up after 2006, another surgery on the horizon, and the Cubs looking elsewhere, we thought we finally had to say goodbye to Kid-K.

But Kerry didn't leave. In a move so unlike so many of the greedy, me-only baseball players of today, Kerry told the Cubs to pay him what they felt he was worth, and steeled himself to face his next surgery and return to the Cubs as a bullpen ace. In something so bizarre to the modern athlete, and so rewarding to the fans, he stated that he felt he owed Us something, and carved in stone his place as the pitcher every Cubs fan would always root for. In 2007 he worked his way back, rehabbed his shoulder through a recovery period that was at one point so painful he nearly called the Cubs to tell him that he was going to retire. But return he did, to a standing ovation on an August night at Wrigley Field. 22 times he took the mound for the Cubs from August to the end of the season, working his way into a valuable setup role by going 1-1 with 3.33 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 24.3 innings.

As spring training started Kerry entered the closer competition with Marmol and Howry, though no one questioned who most Cubs fans were rooting for. Kerry did not disappoint this spring, as his fastball popped the mitt once more at 98 mph. In 10 innings Kerry struckout ten batters and posted a 3.60 ERA, and despite the health questions popping up once more after a one day bout with back spasms, he proved he could pitch on back -to-back days and locked down the role he seemed destined to from the moment his arm failed him as a starter.

So once more the dance begins. This is, in all probability, the last chance for Kerry to claim the greatness that once seemed inevitable for him. I for one believe he will succeed. But when it comes to Kerry Wood, just like all other aspects of being a Cubs fan, it was always about believing.

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