|Kerry Wood gives Cubs fans an emotional finale to his illustrious career. (Getty Images)|
The Weekend Buzz while you were stocking pizza and making pancakes for a houseful of 15-year-old girls on your daughter's birthday sleepover. ...
1. Kerry Wood's Sweet Home Chicago: One hitter faced. One strikeout. One standing ovation and one tremendous hug.
If there was a more perfect way for Kerry Wood to step from his uniform into the Chicago history books, I demand to know what it is. And no, don't tell me anything about after popping a champagne cork following a World Series win. These are the Cubs we're talking about. Be real.
Life is about the striving, and what the Cubs and Wood lack in titles, they more than make up for in lessons. ...
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Strike one. ...
He debuted in 1998 and fanned 20 Houston Astros in his fifth career start, a game in which many considered the finest single-game pitching performance in baseball history. If it wasn't No. 1, it was in the conversation. But here's the thing: He was only 20, and what could he possibly do for an encore?
Two years ago next month, Wood was working in the Cleveland bullpen when the Nationals came to town. Stephen Strasburg was making his second career start in the series finale after striking out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates in his major league debut. The buzz surrounding Strasburg was off the charts.
I stood with Wood on the field that Sunday morning for a bit in front of the Indians' dugout, and we chatted as Strasburg went through his final preparations. By then, Wood was 33. An old 33, with what seemed nearly as much time in the trainer's room as on the field.
Strasburg's youth, talent, sizzling fastball, dominance and seemingly unlimited future couldn't help but remind Wood of someone. Himself.
"But it probably wasn't even comparable to this until the 20-strikeout game in my fifth start," Wood told me that morning. "That's what changed expectations.
"After the 20-strikeout game, for months I [hated] going to the field because I knew it would be two hours of interview requests and radio call-ins. As a young player, you feel obligated to do that because you don't want to cut anybody off. But it got in the way.
"As a starter, the day after you pitch is the day to get your work in and get treatment, and before I got in the hot tub there would be this interview and that call-in."
Strike two. ...
Star-crossed as he's been with injuries and billy-goat luck, Wood stands apart from every single other Cubs pitcher over the past 104 years: He is the only man to earn the win in the clinching game of the only postseason series the Cubs have won since 1908. This was against the Braves in Game 5 of the Division Series in 2003, and we all remember what came next.
The Marlins did, followed by five more years of Wood beating his head against the Wrigley Field brick wall, trying to go backward to the October cheers by moving forward. Following that 14-11 '03 season, in which he led the majors with 266 strikeouts, he never won more than eight games in a summer again. When he broke down physically, he moved to the bullpen. Eventually, he moved to Cleveland, and then to the Yankees.
But his heart, and his love, remained in Chicago.
"Sometimes it seems like there was more downs than ups," he said when he formally retired on Saturday.
But you only remember the good times, right?
Strike three. ...
He took significantly less money than he could have gotten elsewhere last winter to stay in Chicago and finish his career as a Cub. You can't put a price on love and happiness, and if Wood couldn't bequeath Wrigley a championship, then that's a pretty damned good lesson to leave instead.
He was summoned in the eighth inning Friday on a gorgeous Chicago afternoon, sunny, blue skies, a freeze-frame Cubs moment. And he struck out the White Sox's Dayan Viciedo on three pitches.
Then he was off, the organist playing a lovely rendition of Sinatra's My Way, son Justin wrapping him in a hug on the grass in front of the Cubs' dugout, standing ovation, curtain call.
There were smiles and tears and thank yous, to the Kevin Tapanis and Rick Aguileras and Joe Girardis and Jim Hendrys who played pivotal roles in the development of both a young man and a young fireballer.
There was a special thank you to the late Ron Santo "for teaching me what it means to be a Cub. We sat in that [clubhouse] kitchen for many, many years talking about life and baseball and the Chicago Cubs, what it means to be a Cub."
Now the Cubs move forward, and as Theo Epstein and Co. work to end this drought, you never know. Maybe Wood can bring something even more valuable to this franchise than the firecracker fastball from those October nights in '03.
Maybe what he can do now is to help keep alive the spirit of Santo as the Starlin Castros and Darwin Barneys and Anthony Rizzos take aim at winning a World Series.
"I'm going to continue to be a part of it," Wood promised. "I was always a Cub. I've always been a Cub. And I will always continue to be a Cub."
The moment was astoundingly perfect, for both Wood and the Cubs.
2. Justin Verlander and the Ryan Express: Two outs from his third career no-hitter, the Tigers' ace followed a curveball with a slider Friday night, and the Pirates' Josh Harrison reached out and tapped it for a base hit. Verlander was thisclose to becoming only the sixth man ever with three or more no-hitters, following Nolan Ryan (seven), Sandy Koufax (four) and Cy Young, Bob Feller and Larry Corcoran (three apiece).
Given Verlander's dominance, Pittsburgh's light sticks and the fact that the Pirates don't regularly see Verlander, the fact that he lost the no-hitter is more surprising than it would have been had he finished it off. The other surprise was that he followed the curve with a slider to Harrison instead of throwing more cheese. In striking out the side in the eighth, Verlander was firing at 98, 99 m.p.h., and he hit 100 to Clint Barmes.
"That's a freak show," Tigers manager Jim Leyland told reporters, adding: "that was unbelievable to me, watching that."
Leyland called it the best-pitched game he's ever seen. Verlander is 29 and clearly has a real chance -- freaky as this sounds -- to catch up to Ryan's seven no-hitters. Every start is no-hitter watch with Verlander.
3. Bazooka Joe and Bobby Valentine: Video of the gum falling out of umpire Gary Darling's mouth and nailing Valentine in the chin Friday night in Philadelphia was absolutely tremendous. It was exactly what you would get if you mixed one-part Zapruder film and one-part Seinfeld.
4. Chris Perez's Mistake by the Lake: The Indians closer bagged on Cleveland fans for driving away Carlos Beltran and for ignoring a first-place team. That's the gist of it, at least: A frustrated Perez said Beltran and others don't want to come to Cleveland because "nobody wants to play in front of 5,000 fans." He noted Beltran had a choice between that and playing in front of 40,000 fans in St. Louis. He also noted that the Indians are playing to the smallest average crowd in the majors -- 15,518 -- saying on Sunday, "Even Oakland is outdrawing us. That's embarrassing." His points are well taken -- except, it should be noted, that the Indians offered Beltran $2 million less than the Cardinals did. Bottom line, though, is this: It's awfully tough to criticize fans, in this economy, for not spending enough of their money at the ballpark. Easy, Chris.
5. The raging NL East: Every team is over .500, except Philadelphia. And the Phillies enter the week at 21-21. Why, the division almost makes up for the NL Central.
6. Red Sox find lost shaker of Salt: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, since April 20, is hitting .351/.364/.716 with nine doubles, six homers, 13 runs scored and 17 RBI in 77 plate appearances. Even after taking 12 stitches in his left earlobe Friday night, he bounced back to homer on both Saturday and Sunday. Of course he did. He texted Valentine from the hospital Friday night that he was good to go for Saturday, adding, "Plus, I'm due to hit a bomb." So the guy is killing it in text messages, too. What can't he do?
7. Will you still love the Blue Jays (to)Morrow? More and more, Toronto is looking like a playoff contender, and it's starting right there on the mound. Brandon Morrow threw his second shutout of the season on Saturday, against the Mets, and Toronto's starters entered Sunday leading the AL in ERA (3.33), innings pitched (262), opponents' batting average (.228) and were tied for second in wins (19).
8. Dodgers trump Lakers and Clippers: Even with Matt Kemp on the disabled list, the Dodgers continue to steamroll through the NL. And while you may have noticed Clayton Kershaw's complete-game shutout of St. Louis on Saturday night, one key to the Dodgers is what's happening beyond Mr. Cy Young: In back-to-back games against the Padres and Cardinals on Thursday and Friday, starters Aaron Harang and Ted Lilly combined for 12 strikeouts and 0 walks over 14 innings. Yes, Harang. And Lilly. And Chris Capuano is 5-1.
9. Marlins ship Gaby Sanchez out: From All-Star Game (2011) to Triple-A for Sanchez, who is scuffling along at .197 and now becomes another part of the most interesting player development program in the game (Chris Coghlan, Logan Morrison ... Miami's Triple-A shuttle is very busy).
10. Save him, San Francisco: Looking to keep Buster Posey healthy this season, Giants skipper Bruce Bochy ordered him to not block the plate. Bringing to mind the question: Didn't he issue the same warning to his pitchers? Tim Lincecum got smoked against the Athletics on Sunday. Hey, Tim ... don't do that! And feel better soon.