Kerry Wood has shrugged his wide shoulders all season and said it no big deal.
So what if he made the majors at age 20 and struck out a record-tying 20 batters in one game? He was just having fun, soaking up his first year in the big leagues.
Now, after missing the final month of the season, comes the toughest task of his career: Beat four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux Saturday night and keep the Chicago Cubs alive against Atlanta.
"I don't feel a lot of pressure. It's still a baseball game," Wood said Friday as the teams dodged rain drops that canceled an off-day workout. "The season is on the line but the mound is still 60-feet, 6 inches and you've still got to get hitters out."
The Braves won the first two games of the best-of-5 series at Turner Field. Chicago must sweep at Wrigley Field on Saturday and Sunday to force a fifth game Monday in Atlanta.
"It's the biggest game of the year, yet I don't want to go out and overdo it and not be able t pitch next year," Wood said.
The rookie right-hander hasn't pitched since Aug. 31 because of a sprained ligament in his elbow. There were sessions on the bullpen mound to test the pain and then a final dress rehearsal during an instructional league game earlier this week when he threw 51 pitches, reaching 95 mph. He says he's fine.
"If I feel anything with my arm I will shut it down right away," Wood said.
He was 13-6 with a 100-mph fastball and struck out 20 Houston Astros in May, tying the record for a nine-inning game. Hitters had the lowest batting average in the league against him (.196) and he finished 233 strikeouts, third-best in the league.
The Cubs have debated for weeks on whether it was worth the risk to let Wood pitch in the playoffs, when it might further damage his elbow, or just rest him until next season.
Wood won't go too long Saturday, especially if the weather is cool and wet.
"I haven't really put an exact number on it. We'll be looking at how he's throwing, how he's feeling and where his arm is at," Cubs manager Jim Riggleman said. "If he starts dropping his arm and he's getting out of synch out there, we'll get him out of there -- if it's 30 pitches or two innings. If he's going strong and feeling good and the arm is in a good position and we get into that sixth-inning area, we'd probably feel very fortunate."
Wood pitched three times against the Braves -- all Chicago victories -- going 1-0 with a 2.18 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 20 2/3 innings.
He's already faced Maddux this season and beat him in July at Atlanta, allowing five hits and striking out 11 in 7 2/3 shutout innings. Before then, Maddux had been 7-0 against his former team.
"We faced him three times; he's got good stuff and we missed some opportunities to score against him," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "You could see why baseball was raving about him. He's legitimate. I don't know if he's in Nolan Ryan's class, but he's not far behind. It's a matter of health dictating his future."
Maddux left as a free agent after winning his first Cy Young with Chicago in 1992. To this day, the Cubs still hear about the colossal blunder of not re-signing him, even if it the decision was made by a front office long removed.
"I wasn't fired up about leaving," he said. "But I've turned the page."
Thus far, Sammy Sosa hasn't homered, going 2-for-7 with no RBI.
"Nobody knows what can happen. We'll probably come back and win three in a row," Sosa said. "We've done it before and we're probably going to do it again."
The Cubs aren't concerned about their rookie pitcher being jittery.
"I don't worry about Kerry Wood, I worry about earthquakes and hurricanes," said first baseman Mark Grace, who played with Maddux on the Cubs' previous playoff team in 1989.
The Cubs couldn't get a better pitching performance than Kevin Tapani gave them in Game 2. He took a fou-hit shutout into the ninth, only to lose it on Javy Lopez's tying homer. The Braves won 2-1 in the 10th.
Chicago is hoping Wood's reappearance and a charged-up Wrigley Field will will prolong their season against the best team of the '90s. Wood's already been through a lot in his first season.
"I'm still a rookie and I haven't forgotten that," he said. "I've seen a lot of things this year that lot of people haven't seen. With the home run race going, the excitement of the chase, it was pretty much a playoff atmosphere the last month and a half."
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