10/06/2003 12:55 AM ET
Mature Kid K steps it up a notch
ATLANTA -- Kid K is all grown up. Given the ball for the two biggest starts of his career, Kerry Wood came through with power, grace and composure in the National League Division Series.
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
He gave his team a needed Game 1 win at Turner Field, ringing up 11 strikeouts against the offense that was the NL's best in the regular season. Then he closed out the Cubs' first postseason series victory in 95 years, pitching eight stellar innings in a 4-1 clincher on Sunday night.
If they awarded MVP laurels in the first round of the baseball postseason, you'd have to figure Wood as a favorite to hoist the trophy. Wood was unusually efficient, thoroughly effective and completely in command.
"His performance was excellent," said Chicago manager Dusty Baker. "He had two of them in the series. If there is an MVP in the series, it should be Wood.
"The second time is especially tough. He was under control. He was composed. He backed off one time and you could see his maturity as a person and as a pitcher. He's going to go a long, long way in his life and in his future."
Maturity hasn't always been a word that springs to mind when you talk about Wood. Fire, competitiveness, and definitely stuff -- all of those things have defined his still-young career. But the 26-year-old Texan is getting it together. He's learning that rear-back-and-fire isn't always the way to get it done.
Never was that more evident than in the sixth inning on Sunday, when an apparent fly-ball double play was ruled a non-catch, costing Wood an out and a run. He had been cruising until that point, and in past years Wood might have come unraveled. Not this time. The next batter, Chipper Jones, grounded into a double play and Wood stuck it out two more innings.
"I just tried to make sure I didn't let anything get out of control after that," he said. "The defense played great for me tonight and that was another great defensive play. We had a double play there but it didn't go our way. The run scored, but you still have to go back to work and let go."
He did just that, keeping the Braves from getting on the board again, then yielding to Cubs closer Joe Borowski for the final three outs.
Wood's 18 strikeouts over two games set a team record for a postseason series. It was the second-highest series total in the brief history of the Division Series. But the man who led the NL in Ks this season did much more than ring 'em up. He got grounder after grounder, forcing his outfielders to make a total of four putouts in Sunday's deciding Game 5. And he threw strikes. Seventy-nine strikes out of 117 pitches on Sunday, to be exact.
"In the bullpen, I could see that he had a little extra," catcher Damian Miller said. "He was ready to go after about 10 pitches. He was fired up. And then he came out in that first inning, and he hit 99 miles an hour. That's not a whole lot of fun for that other team. He beared down when he had to. He got some big outs. He made pitches, and that's the Kerry who is very close to being the dominant pitcher in this league."
The stuff is still there, mind you. The high-90s fastball, the hard-breaking power curve, it's one of the nastiest arsenals in the game. He can definitely strike guys out, almost at will. But when Wood can hold an opponent to one run on five hits, strike out seven and walk just two, that's a step forward.
"He did this earlier in the year," said pitching coach Larry Rothschild. "And then his back acted up and he got out of sync a little bit. It's just the progression of a pitcher. To get to certain levels, you go through this. And you handle it, and the good ones handle it. He did. It's not surprising."
So now, Wood isn't quite going to Disney World, but he will be headed to Florida soon. He will take the mound in Game 3 of the NL Championship Series at Pro Player Stadium in Miami. For the third straight game, he will be pitching in the most important game of his career.
Division Series opener, Division Series clincher, and now his first foray into the LCS. You have to think he'll be prepared for it.
"We celebrate a little bit tonight," he said Sunday, "but tomorrow it's back to work and another goal we have to work towards. We have to get ready for the Marlins and get ready for that series first."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.