Wood feeling good as camp opens
Cubs right-hander in three-way battle for closer's role
MESA, Ariz. -- It's been a rejuvenating offseason for Kerry Wood. The right-hander has come a long way from that 20-strikeout game his rookie season and now is the longest tenured player on the Cubs' Spring Training roster. He's one of three pitchers battling for the closer's job.Most important, Wood is healthy. "I felt great when I finished the season last year," Wood said. "It felt like June for me when the season was over because I had such a late start. I took some time off and got right back into it. It's nice to come into camp. My body feels good, and I'm ready to go." Last season marked the first time Wood pitched in the big leagues but did not make a start. It was by design, part of the move to switch him to relief to ease the work load on his right shoulder. He was slowed last Spring Training by his shoulder and was not activated from the disabled list until Aug. 3. The right-hander, who totaled 200-plus innings in 2002 and '03, appeared in 24 1/3 innings in '07. He struck out 24 and compiled a 3.33 ERA. Wood ended the year with eight consecutive scoreless appearances, striking out 13 and walking three over 9 2/3 innings. He was not called upon in any save situations, and he has none in his career. But that could change this season. Wood, Bob Howry and Carlos Marmol all are competing for the job. "I think it will be good," Wood said of the competition. "I think we have a lot of good arms down there. I know the staff and [manager] Lou [Piniella] will put the right guys down there so we have the best chance to win." Of the three, Howry has the most experience as closer. In 1999, he converted 28 of 34 save opportunities for the Chicago White Sox. Last season, he stepped in when Ryan Dempster was hurt and finished the year 8-for-12. Wood passed all the tests last season and now has to prove he's durable enough to handle the closer's duties. Does he have a preference? "Just to help the team in whatever role I end up doing and obviously just go out and pitch and be successful and feel strong doing it," he said. "I think we've got plenty of guys who can do it, and we're in a good situation.
"Obviously, it would be an exciting role to be in," he said. "Is it a goal? My goal right now is just to go out and get through spring and be ready to go when the season starts in whatever role that will be."Piniella has said he'll let the situation play itself out. This could be reminiscent of the 1990 Cincinnati Reds' "Nasty Boys" bullpen of Randy Myers, Norm Charlton and Rob Dibble. But Piniella doesn't want three closers, just one. "Everybody talks about the closer role and rightfully so because you have to get the last three outs of the ballgame, but to me, those seventh and eighth innings, those are the nuts and bolts of a bullpen," Piniella said. "You don't get through that, the closer doesn't figure in the ninth." As far as Wood, 30, is concerned, it doesn't matter if he's pitching in the second or the sixth or the ninth. His job remains the same. "Once you're on the mound, for me, I don't think it should matter what inning you're in," he said. "You're there to get those guys out. Obviously, there's a little more pressure in the ninth inning. We'll see." He didn't spend the offseason picking the brains of other closers. Wood and wife Sarah were busy as they celebrated the arrival of their second child, daughter Katy. After 11 stints on the disabled list plus elbow and shoulder surgeries, Wood has given up the notion of returning to the rotation. "I felt great finishing last year. From Day 1 picking up the ball this year, I feel normal again and it's nice," he said. He was the last Cubs pitcher on the mound in 2007, finishing Game 3 of the National League Division Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. It was the only time he pitched the ninth inning last season. Wood begins the 2008 season fourth on the Cubs' all-time strikeout list with 1,323. Next up is Rick Reuschel, who fanned 1,367. Fergie Jenkins is the all-time leader with 2,038. Will Wood add to that list as the closer? "Obviously, it's different and a different mind-set," he said. "Anytime it's late in the game, it's important. Every at-bat is important. Toward the end of the game, you get a little more anxious."
It's just a matter of getting the job done.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.