CHICAGO — Kerry Wood brought some of the nastiest, most unhittable stuff baseball had ever seen in a rookie when he arrived in 1998.
He dazzled fans when he struck out 20 in just his fifth start, drove hitters crazy all year and helped carry the Chicago Cubs to the playoffs. Winning NL Rookie of the Year honors was practically a given.
"I was going on pure ability. That didn't get me very far. It got me on the operating table," Wood said, holding up his right arm, which still bears a scar from the reconstructive elbow surgery he had on April 8, 1999.
"I knew ... I was going to be OK and be able to come back with my good stuff. But it took a lot longer than I thought it was going to take."
Three years after his remarkable rookie season, Wood is back to being one of the toughest pitchers in baseball. In fact, at 24, he might be even better than he was in 1998.
The strikeouts that earned him the nickname "Kid K" are still there -- he's third in the NL with 133--but he's now spotting his fastball with such precision that hitters don't have a chance.
"It's a lot of fun just watching, seeing how he mows down hitters," said Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutierrez, who was the only Houston Astro to get a hit off Wood during the 20-strikeout game.
"Sometimes, you feel sorry for the hitters."
Tommy John surgery is so common now--Wood is one of four Cubs who've had it--that doctors were confident he'd eventually return to his dominating form.
But it would take time.
The first half of last season was a struggle for someone who had been blessed with a rare talent. Pitching had always come easy to Wood, but for the first time, he wasn't able to do everything he wanted when he was on the mound.
"That was frustrating," he said. "I hadn't gone through what I went through the first half of last year, getting beat around and consistently, time after time, not having good stuff."
His velocity was still in the mid-90s, but his control and command came and went. His ERA climbed and the losses mounted.
Manager Don Baylor kept a strict pitch count on him, too. It didn't matter if he worked four innings or seven, the limit stood.
"I'm not a doctor, but I'm going to listen to them," Baylor said. "That sometimes is kind of hard, but his career was in my hands. ... To reap any benefits, you had to take it last year.
"That's exactly what I did. Got a lot of holes in my lip, but I had to do it."
Things started falling into place after the All-Star break last year. Wood won three straight in July, his first multigame winning streak since he returned, and had his first double-digit strikeout game in August.
He had a 2.08 ERA in his final five starts. And on Sept. 12, he threw the second complete game of his career, coming two outs from shutting out the Cincinnati Reds.
"That was the turning point for me knowing that I'm back, I can pitch at this level," he said.
Wood got off to a rough start this season, losing four of his first eight starts and getting no decisions in three others. While he and pitching coach Oscar Acosta worked on his mechanics, Baylor called an old teammate, Nolan Ryan, and asked if he'd talk to Wood.
If anyone could identify with Wood, it's Ryan, baseball's career strikeout leader.
"It's a great resource to have: Nolan Ryan, having him on your side and being willing to talk with you and answer questions if you have any," Wood said.
Wood sent Ryan some tapes of his outings, and they talked on the phone. Ryan thought the problem was more mental than physical, so Wood took the mound May 19 with a different attitude.
"It was too early to get down, so I just ... said, 'I'm going to go out and have fun today,"' he said. "I went out and had a blast. It was probably the most fun I'd had on the mound in a long time."
He beat Arizona that day, snapping Chicago's eight-game losing streak and starting a run of 13 wins in a row. He also started a career-high, six-game personal winning streak.
Though he lost June 22 and took a no decision in Wednesday's game, Wood is 6-1 with a 2.29 ERA in his last eight outings. Overall, he's 7-5 with a 3.60 ERA, 133 strikeouts and only 60 walks.