Travis Wood takes game to All-Star level, becomes part of Cubs blueprint

Travis Wood takes game to All-Star level, becomes part of Cubs blueprint
July 15, 2013, 12:45 am
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Travis Wood has become an unlikely billboard for “The Cubs Way.”

This is what Theo Epstein’s front office envisioned when they turned Clark and Addison into the land of opportunity for club-controlled, high-upside, change-of-scenery players.     

This is why manager Dale Sveum, pitching coach Chris Bosio and their staffers have so much credibility within the clubhouse and job security inside the organization. 

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Wood’s evolution means the 26-year-old left-hander should be here when Wrigley Field goes Jumbotron and it’s rocking every night the way it was this weekend for the St. Louis Cardinals.  

Wood hung in there on Sunday night against the National League’s best team, minimizing the damage by giving up three runs on 10 hits across 5.2 innings. A 10-6 loss showed why the Cubs (42-51) are unapologetic sellers, and the Cardinals (57-36) expect to be playing deep into October.

Matt Guerrier became the ninth Cubs reliever to blow a save this season for a bullpen that’s now 22-for-41 in save chances. MVP favorite Yadier Molina generated four of his team’s 21 hits, including a three-run bomb in the ninth inning off Cubs closer Kevin Gregg.

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But looking at the big picture, Wood belongs in the All-Star Game after a first half in which he went 6-6 with a 2.79 ERA. Afterward, Sveum confirmed Wood will be available to pitch an inning in Tuesday night’s game at Citi Field in New York.

“It means a lot, especially for the first time,” Wood said. “Hopefully, there’s more to come. Especially for my wife and kid and my parents and a couple friends to be able to experience it – it’s going to be outstanding.” 

When the Cubs take a chance on a pitcher – the way they did in the Sean Marshall trade with the Cincinnati Reds just before Christmas Day 2011 – they believe the staff will coach ‘em up. They break down video, run the numbers and script game plans. They know their X’s and O’s.

That’s how general manager Jed Hoyer framed this month’s Scott Feldman trade with the Baltimore Orioles, hoping Jake Arrieta can thrive in a new environment the same way Wood grabbed this opportunity, absorbed all that information and ran with it.

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“He’s definitely taken his game to the next level,” Epstein said. “It’s really remarkable when you think about where his command is now, compared to where it was 15 months ago. He deserves a ton of credit for working his way to the point where he can command the baseball to both sides of the plate.

“He’s always been good at manipulating the ball, but now he can do it both ways, to both sides of the plate. And if you talk to hitters on opposing teams, it’s not comfortable. He finds his way off the barrel of the bat, even with just average stuff.”

Wood is only 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds. With a full beard and his hat pulled down over his eyes, he blends into the clubhouse. He has a low, quiet voice out of Arkansas, and he never uses it to promote himself or complain about the run support.

“He’s a stubborn little kid,” pitcher Jeff Samardzija said. “He knows what works for him and he sticks with it. There’s a lot to be said (for that) in this sport. It goes up and goes down. Some hops go your way and some don’t. You just can’t let them get to you. You realize what’s working for you and you stick with it.

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“He’s done a great job pitching this year, working in and out, throwing backdoor pitches, throwing guys changeups in. If you look at his changeup and his curveballs, they’ve been probably 100 percent better this year than they were last year.”

Until Wood, the last Cub to account for 17 quality starts before the All-Star break was Greg Maddux in 1988 (the same year Wrigley Field added lights). Wood has pitched into the sixth in each of his 19 outings this season, putting up 86 strikeouts against 38 walks in 122.2 innings. 

“Talk about consistency,” Samardzija said. “He’s come out every fifth day and been that same guy and given us a chance to win the game. I know he’s had some tough luck. But good for him to keep doing the same thing. (We expect him to) be that same guy every fifth day in the second half.”   

Wood is deceptively athletic and fields his position well. In Sunday’s lineup, only Dioner Navarro (.287) had a higher batting average than Wood (.265), and he loves to sprint around the bases and throw his body into a takeout slide.

Sveum said Tuesday is when Wood would throw his bullpen session anyway. Even on the side for 45 pitches, Sveum said Wood likes to go almost all-out at 95 percent effort. This could just happen to be in the All-Star Game.

“That’s Travis for you,” second baseman Darwin Barney said. “He’s got his cleats on when he’s not pitching, so he can pinch-run. That’s just the way he plays the game.”