Pitcher Kerry Wood said he doesn't consider himself a rookie at this point, which is good news for the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs have turned to the 21-year-old to prolong their season--not a typical assignment for a rookie starter. But that's the right-hander's job today against the Atlanta Braves in Game 3 of the National League division series at Wrigley Field.
Atlanta has a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series. This isn't the best-case scenario for a first-year player, but such is life.
"I don't feel a lot of pressure because this is still baseball," said Wood, who was 1-0 in three starts against the Braves in the regular season. "The mound is still 60 feet 6 inches from home plate, and you still have to get the hitters out.
"I'm really not nervous, although I probably will be a little when the game starts. Some guys get nervous and fold, and some guys get nervous and feed off it. Hopefully, I can feed off of it."
Chicago Manager Jim Riggleman acknowledges that Wood and the Cubs are in a difficult situation.
"But this is the situation we're in, and we all understand that," Riggleman said. "We're as upbeat as we can be for a team down 0-2, and we're confident in Kerry.
"He has really lifted the spirits of the fans and the team from his first day here. We know we're asking a lot of Kerry, to go out there against a great pitcher like [Atlanta right-hander] Greg Maddux, but we believe he's up to the challenge. He has been for the whole season."
When he hasn't been in pain.
Wood--expected to be selected the NL rookie of the year--went 13-6 with a 3.40 earned-run average and 233 strikeouts in 166 2/3 innings. He is second only to Sammy Sosa in popularity among Cub fans.
But Wood hasn't pitched since Aug. 31 because of a strained ligament in his throwing elbow. And there is concern that he might be jeopardizing his career by pitching again this season.
Wood said he's going to be careful.
"It's the biggest game of the year, but I still don't want to hurt my arm," Wood said. "I want to pitch next year. I don't feel any pressure from the fans or the media. If I feel anything in my arm, I'm going to shut it down right away."
Riggleman is optimistic that Wood can pitch six innings. The temperature is expected to be around 50 degrees at game time, and Riggleman said he will remove Wood after 30 pitches, or two innings, if his elbow ligaments tighten because of the cold weather.
"I'm feeling good now," said Wood, who threw 51 pitches in an instructional game Monday. "I expect to go out there and continue where I left off."
(18-9, 2.22 ERA)
(13-6, 3.40 ERA)
Site--Wrigley Field, Chicago
Time--4:30 p.m. PDT TV--Ch. 4
* Update--The Braves swept their opponents in two previous division series. Maddux is 3-0 with a 2.40 ERA in four division series starts. Maddux led the NL in ERA, but he stirred concern among Atlanta fans by going 6-7 in the second half. There is speculation that Maddux has suffered an injury, but he said he's fine. "I felt I pitched a lot better my last two starts of the [regular] season, but that doesn't matter now," said Maddux, who went from Chicago to Atlanta as a free agent after the 1992 season. "The only thing that matters now is how I pitch [today]."