Originally created 03/19/00

Wood looks good in first start with reconstructed elbow



MESA, Ariz. -- For about 20 minutes, Kerry Wood felt just like he did when he was called up to the big leagues in 1998. His stomach was jumping, his legs were weak and his body was shaking.

But as soon as he reared back, let the baseball fly and heard the umpire yell, "Strike!" everything was right in his world.

"I felt like I was just out there playing catch," he said. "I was just happy to be out there. I forgot how much fun it was."

The 1998 NL Rookie of the Year made his first start Saturday since reconstructive elbow surgery last April, giving up one hit in one inning as the Cubs lost to the Chicago White Sox 8-7 in a split-squad game.

Sammy Sosa hit a two-run homer, his eighth of spring training, in the first inning as the Cubs took a 6-0 lead. But Carlos Lee drove in three runs as the White Sox rallied.

A sellout crowd of 12,426 packed the stadium to see Wood, and fans lined up early to catch a glimpse of the pitcher who tied a major league record in just his fifth career start, striking out 20 in a nine-inning game. One fan carried a sign that read, "Welcome Back, Kerry."

"You just get excited behind him," Cubs first baseman Mark Grace said. "Somebody like him, he's great for the game. He's great for our team. I'm just ecstatic."

Wood threw 15 pitches, 10 of them strikes. All but three of his pitches were fastballs, with his speed ranging from 93-97 mph.

"It's as good as he can get, I think," catcher Joe Girardi said. "I don't think he could have done much better."

When he walked off the field, fans gave Wood a standing ovation, and his teammates were waiting at the dugout steps to give him high-fives.

"The guys were great throughout the whole rehab. They never made me feel like I was not part of the team," he said. "The toughest thing for me (last year) was sitting there knowing you couldn't compete. The physical part of it was a piece of cake compared to sitting there watching."

The right-hander threw a strike on his first pitch. He gave up his only hit to Mike Caruso, the first batter, a single up the gap. His last pitches to Jeff Abbott and Paul Konerko, both fastballs, were clocked at 97 mph.

He threw one pitch at 93 mph, eight at 95 mph and one at 96 mph. He did throw a changeup over Liu Rodriguez's head, but he came back with a changeup that Konerko never got close to touching.

"I didn't really air any out. I was trying to stay smooth and control my mechanics," Wood said.

"There were a couple of situations where I wish I'd have had it to throw," he added, smiling. "But we're taking steps. That day will come soon enough."

Wood will be examined by doctors Sunday, but he said his arm felt fine and he doesn't anticipate any problems. He'll throw on the side this week and hopes to pitch again -- maybe getting two innings next time -- next Thursday against the Seattle Mariners.

"We're at baby steps right now," manager Don Baylor said. "We'll see how we are later in the week."

As for when he'll be back in the lineup for good, that's still up in the air, Cubs general manager Ed Lynch said. Wood won't accompany the Cubs to Japan for their season opener, and he'll probably start the season on the disabled list.

"Kerry will tell us by his performance and the way he recovers exactly when he's going to be ready," Lynch said. "Obviously, we're going to try and get him out there as soon as we can, but we're going to be very conservative.

"The long-term interest of Kerry Wood is No. 1 on our list because it also is the long-term interest of the ballclub for him to have a long and productive career," Lynch added. "We're not going to do anything to jeopardize that."

If Wood keeps progressing as he has since undergoing ligament replacement surgery on April 8, 1999, he should be around for a long, long time. While it takes most pitchers who have "Tommy John" surgery 18 months to recover, Wood has been ahead of schedule since he had surgery.

He began throwing off the mound during the winter, and was throwing to hitters by the end of February. He started throwing curveballs last week.

"I knew my arm was going to be fine," Wood said of his first start. "My only concern was being too nervous. I wasn't worried about the arm at all."

It's been awhile since he was able to say that after pitching in a game. Plagued by elbow problems at the end of his rookie season, he made only one spring training appearance last year, starting against the Anaheim Angels on March 13 in Tempe, Ariz.

The next morning, he felt pain in his elbow. Tests eventually revealed a torn ulnar collateral ligament, and he had surgery last April 8.

"It changed my approach to the game," he said. "And I definitely won't take anything for granted."

Notes: Ismael Valdes, penciled in as the Cubs' opening-day starter, has a dead arm and might be finished for spring training, Baylor said. ... Grace, who sat out seven of the last eight games with a broken right finger, was in the lineup again. He went 0-for-3. ... Third baseman Willie Greene, plagued by injuries all spring, had more bad luck Saturday. He needed nine stitches after splitting the area between his thumb and forefinger on his right hand while trying to field a ground ball. ... Caruso stole a base while Wood was pitching.