CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs didn't plan it this way, honest.
Almost two years to the day of his 20-strikeout game against the Houston Astros, Kerry Wood makes his return to the majors tonight at Wrigley Field.
The opponent? None other than those poor Astros.
"The 20-strikeout game was one of those in-the-zone games for anybody," Cubs manager Don Baylor said. "If (his return) was going to be against the Pirates, it has the same meaning to Kerry. It just so happened that's the way it fell with the Astros.
"I'm pretty sure they're watching pretty closely," Baylor added. "There are some guys there that had a lot of strikeouts in games that he pitched."
Wood, the 1998 NL Rookie of the Year, missed all of last season after blowing out his elbow in spring training and having reconstructive surgery. It was a cruel postscript to a rookie season so impressive he was hailed as the next Nolan Ryan or Roger Clemens.
It takes most pitchers about 18 months to recover from the surgery, but Wood has been on the fast track all along. He made his first start in more than a year in a spring training game against the crosstown rival White Sox and then made three strong rehabilitation starts, throwing 90 mph-plus.
He was on schedule to make his return last week -- probably against the Arizona Diamondbacks -- but he developed a blister on the middle finger of his pitching hand and had to be pushed back a few days.
So now he's starting Tuesday, four days shy of the two-year anniversary of the 20-K game.
"I'm not going to forget who it was against," Wood said. "But it's not going to be weighing on my mind, and I'm not going to go out there and try to strike out guys. I'm going to go out and get my outs and keep us close and try to give us a chance to win."
Even if he's not thinking about May 6, 1998, there's no doubt the Astros will.
"One of the two or three most memorable games of my career was watching him, from our dugout, strike out 20," Astros manager Larry Dierker said. "Even in subsequent games that year, we never touched him. So facing him again at Wrigley would definitely be memorable."
Wood was making just his fifth career start when he fanned 20 Astros to tie the major league record. He opened the game with five strikeouts in a row and fanned seven straight during the seventh through ninth innings.
He was so dominant he gave up only one hit, a single to Ricky Gutierrez in the third inning.
"The day he faced us, he was awesome," said Gutierrez, now with the Cubs. "His arm is just tremendous. ... You know the fastball is coming and you still have to get it going to hit it because it's so overpowering.
"I'll be glad to be on his side instead of the opposing side," he added. "I already had that treatment."
The rest of the Astros aren't so lucky. When the Cubs were in Houston last week, the Astros just knew they were going to face Wood, even though there was still talk he might pitch against the Diamondbacks, Mark Grace said.
"They knew and they were all talking about it," Grace said. "That's the kind of presence he brings, a guy that you think about prior to the day you face him."
It's also proof that even though he's been away from the game for a year, the expectations aren't any less than they were in 1998. Surgery or no surgery, most are expecting to see the same, flame-throwing Kid K.
And they might. After catching Wood in spring training, Joe Girardi told Baylor he couldn't believe Wood hadn't thrown in a year.
"I don't worry about expectations," Wood said. "I'm not big into that. I go out and do my job and let everybody else make expectations. If everybody else goes out and does their job, then we won't have any problems."
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