Wood considers joining Yankees 'a blessing'

Kerry Wood of the New York Yankees

Kerry Wood of the New York Yankees pitches during game two of the ALDS game against the Minnesota Twins. (Oct. 7, 2010) Photo Credit: Getty

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One night in late July, after a Yankees game in Cleveland, Joe Girardi shared a nice chat and a big hug with Kerry Wood.

At the time, Wood was the Indians' injured closer who figured to be in Cleveland the rest of the season. "Or maybe an August pickup, a waiver-wire thing, I didn't know," he said the other day. "I was on the DL with a blister, just trying to get off of it and go out there and pitch."

The chat and the hug between Girardi and Wood looked like just a momentary how-are-things-going reunion between a couple of former Cubs, catcher and pitcher. But by the end of the week, he was pitching in the same uniform as Girardi again. By the end of the season, instead of being in Cleveland or limbo, he was in the heart of the Yankees' universe as the eighth-inning setup man for Mariano Rivera.

"So," he said at his Yankee Stadium locker stall during the American League Division Series, "it has been a blessing."

It also was about time that he put one over on expectations, for a change.

Wood never became the flame-throwing icon he seemed destined to be when he had a 20-strikeout game as a 20-year-old rookie in 1998. Teammates joked at the time they would have to sneak in a celebratory beer because he wasn't old enough to drink legally. Then Tommy John surgery knocked him out of the entire 1999 season and started a string of 14 trips to the disabled list.

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The 33-year-old still has had a fine and resilient career, making two All-Star teams and completing the conversion from starter to closer. It just hasn't been as fancy as he and observers expected. A Yankees championship this season probably would mean as much to Wood as it would to anyone else on the club.

"It would be huge. That's why I play the game, that's why I've gone through all the rehab and the surgeries, all the stuff I've been through in the past with the injuries," he said. "It's because you want to win a championship; you want to win that ring."

As soon as he was acquired for cash and future considerations just before the trade deadline, the Yankees started studying everything about him, going back to the day he struck out 20 Astros in a one-hitter during his fifth big-league start and back to the 2000-02 seasons, when Girardi was his catcher.

"When I caught him, he had a much bigger slider than he does today," Girardi said. "Some people talk about that might have been what hurt his elbow. His slider was as good as anyone's I've ever seen. He threw harder. His stuff was more electric. But he didn't have the command that he's had for us here."

As a late-season Yankee, Wood had 21 consecutive scoreless appearances. His 0.69 ERA was the best for a single season in Yankees history among pitchers who worked at least 25 innings. He credits regular work and a tip from pitching coach Dave Eiland that improved his curveball.

Wood wants to pitch "a few more years" and would like to be someone's closer in 2011, notwithstanding one subpar outing and one poor outing in the ALDS. He has found it "surreal" watching Rivera on a daily basis, amazed at the closer's ability to stay calm - matched only by former Cubs teammate Greg Maddux.

But it was another ex-Cub who made Wood feel most at home in New York. "Honestly, it's the same as it was when he was catching," Wood said. "He was kind of like a manager when he was playing. Joe always has been a student of the game, a great baseball mind. Nothing has changed. The only thing is, he's not wearing the gear anymore."

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