CHICAGO – Within seconds of Travis Wood bathing in congratulations from his Chicago Cubs teammates for doing something that hadn’t been done in more than 90 years, he was warned. Yeah, he had hit a postseason home run, which was great, and he happened to be a pitcher, which made it even greater, and on top of that he was a relief pitcher, which made it Halley’s Comet rare, but nobody wanted to hear about it.
Not because it wasn’t magnificent. Oh, it was. A 29-year-old pitcher, cast to the dutiful role of long reliever – the garbage man of the baseball world – getting to play hero for a night, and at Wrigley Field no less, in a 5-2 victory over the San Francisco Giants that staked the Cubs a 2-0 division series lead and left them one win from the National League Championship Series. Even if his 393-foot home run to left field off George Kontos served more as insurance than a deciding blow, that took nothing away from its glory. And yet because Travis Wood also happens to be an inveterate loudmouth, the sort who loves to talk about how good of a hitter he is, Cubs players struck pre-emptively to save themselves from an aural assault on the flight to San Francisco for Game 3.
“I already told him he’s not allowed to talk,” Cubs ace Jon Lester said.
“It’s gonna be a long ride,” fellow starter John Lackey said.
“It’s 4½ hours of listening to the recap of him hitting a homer,” Lester said.
“The worst thing about Travis Wood,” Cubs catcher David Ross said, “is I’m gonna have to listen to his crap the whole way to San Francisco. He’s gonna get a couple cocktails in him, and then he’s gonna get diarrhea of the mouth. He swears he’s such a good hitter, so I’ve been all over him about stop swinging at the first pitch, and he swings at that first pitch and takes it deep. He’s gonna give it to me. He already did on the bench. I said, ‘Travis, get away from me. I’m trying to focus the game, and I can’t listen to your crap right now.’ ”
Lester and Lackey and Ross rib him because they love him, because when you spend almost nine months and tens of thousands of airline miles and 162 games with one another, you learn certain things, and one thing they know unequivocally about Travis Wood is he loves him some Travis Wood. And it’s not in a harmful way or a bothersome way or even an egomaniacal way. It’s just that on a team with Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo and a seeming never-ending supply of elite position-playing talent, Wood loves to tell everyone he’s every bit as good as them.
“He thinks that he can play first as good as Rizzo, and he thinks he can play third as good as Bryant,” Ross said. “He thinks he should be batting fourth in the lineup when he’s in there pitching. He’s that guy. It’s just fun. He’s the guy that comes back and says, ‘I can’t believe I missed that pitch.’ ”
He didn’t miss the cut fastball from Kontos. Wood was in the game only because Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks wore an Angel Pagan line drive off his right forearm and left the game in the fourth inning. Wood, an effective left-handed starter for the Cubs early in their rebuilding process, had transitioned from the rotation to long man to a more traditional relief role this season, with a particular ability to padlock left-handed hitters, who slashed .128/.208/.239 against him.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon called upon him, too, because the pitcher’s spot was due up in the batting order the next inning, and Wood legitimately can hit. He whacked three home runs in 2013, followed with three more in 2014 and entered Saturday with nine in his career, the third most among active starters. The rest of the pitchers know this, too, because Wood so frequently reminds them. Jake Arrieta, who has two home runs in each of the last two seasons? Slap hitter, Wood says. Lester’s game-winning squeeze bunt earlier this season? A real athlete, Wood says, can play left field and make a highlight catch, as he did earlier this season when Maddon wanted to keep him in to face another left-handed hitter later in the game.
Wood doesn’t really have a big head. He genuflected to Hendricks, whose broken-bat, bases-loaded single plated two runs. “Kyle’s two RBIs trump my one,” Wood said. And he blah-blah-blah’d about how he appreciated the opportunity to hit and just wanted to put a good swing on the ball. The public modesty, however, would give way to private vainglory.
“We’ve already put duct tape over his mouth so he can’t talk about it,” Lester said. “He got to talk about it a little bit when he came in here, and everybody was happy about that, and that was great, but on the plane we’re gonna kibosh it a little bit.”
There’s only so much the Cubs could do. Wood sits in a cluster toward the back of the plane with Lester, Ross, Arrieta, Lackey and catcher Miguel Montero. In addition to his pitcher/hitter combination, he plays the vital dual role of DJ/bartender on the plane, spinning a mix of George Strait-era country music and present-day hip-hop. Wood, Maddon said, is “the kind of guy that likes to sit on the back porch all winter,” which, Ross said, really means “he’s a true redneck.”
And he said it with the same grin they all have when they talk about Wood. First-base coach Brandon Hyde high-fived Wood so hard he almost forced him to miss touching the bag. In the dugout, the Cubs went nuts. And they didn’t even know that it had been 92 years since anyone did what Wood had done.
Twenty-one pitchers had hit a home run in a postseason game before Saturday. Twenty of them were starters. The only relief pitcher before Wood was Rosy Ryan, whose solo shot off Allen Russell in Game 3 of the 1924 World Series helped the New York Giants to a 6-4 victory over the Washington Senators. It was forever ago, and that wasn’t lost on the Cubs.
They don’t want to get too far ahead of themselves, not with Madison Bumgarner looming in Game 3, not with the Giants having won their last eight elimination games, not with nine more wins to go until they reach their true goal. Games like this, though, in which a relief pitcher does something not seen in more than nine decades – that’s enough to plant a seed in the Cubs’ heads.
“Maybe,” Lester said, “we’ll win the World Series, because it’s been a long time since we’ve done that.”