Wood's road paved with big moments

Wood's road paved with memories

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Brandon Wood hasn't yet hit or made his mark on the Major League stage with the Angels, but he has been exposed to big-time pressures and conditions -- with a highly favorable response.

When Wood powered a game-winning, two-run, eighth-inning homer on Friday against the Rangers in Surprise, it wasn't the first time that had happened. An identical stroke highlighted his performance in 2006 for Team USA in the Olympic qualifying tournament in Cuba.

Along with another of the Angels' premium young talents, Nick Adenhart, Wood helped drive the Americans to an Olympic berth and a dramatic 7-5 victory over host Cuba in the finale, giving Team USA the tournament title.

It was Wood's two-run homer in the eighth that delivered the decisive runs, quieting a Cuban throng that had been so loud, Brandon recalled, "you couldn't hear yourself breathe."

He could, however, feel the impact of bat on ball and the rush of circling the bases at what, at the time, was the biggest moment of his evolving career.

"That was Cuba's A team, its best players," said Adenhart, who went 4 2/3 innings in his appearance against Brazil, a winning effort. "I had never been in any kind of environment like that, with the emotion of those crowds. It was amazing, really.

"Brandon kind of struggled at first, but he was a staple defensively with the team. And that home run he hit was big; that was for first place, and it came against one of Cuba's most famous pitchers.

"I love Brandon's game, the way he plays. He's a great teammate. He can hit, and he's very solid defensively. He showed that in the tournament, making all the plays."

For Wood, this was a rite of passage, a proving ground. When you deliver in circumstances such as these, it's something that stays with you, carries you through rough times.

"To beat Cuba on its turf with 45,000 people screaming and yelling," Wood said, "that was a great feeling.

"We'd already qualified [for the Olympics] as one of the top two teams when we played that final game. I hit a couple of home runs [in the tournament], but that two-run homer I hit in the eighth inning to make it 7-5 was something I'll remember.

"That was a great feeling as far as doing something for your team and your country."

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Equally memorable moments would arrive months later when Wood, in an Angels uniform, lined his first Major League hit in Chicago on April 29 against closer Bobby Jenks and homered in Baltimore on Sept. 12 against Danys Baez.

"It's hard to beat the thrill of your first big league game, hit, home run," Wood said.

Having added about 15 pounds of upper-body muscle in the offseason, reaching 215, Wood is third on the depth chart at shortstop and third base. He wisely resists focusing on his chances of making the 25-man roster, aware of the likelihood of opening the season back at Triple-A Salt Lake.

Even though his mission is to reach Anaheim, "you can't let it affect your play. I think my chances are a little better this spring, but you can't dwell on it too much. My goals are to play well and make the decision as tough as possible on them."

Third base, a position he learned to play last spring, was his avenue to the Majors in 2007, when Chone Figgins and Maicer Izturis were down with injuries.

The first of Wood's five stints in Anaheim came on April 26, and he was back in each month except June. Wood finished with a .152 average, his 33 at-bats coming so intermittently there was no way he could find anything close to a comfort zone.

The challenge for Wood, as with all young hitters, is to gain a confident approach and manage anxiety while honing in on pitch recognition and pitch selection.

For young power hitters -- Mike Schmidt is the name that always leaps to mind -- it can be a painstaking process. Contact hitters with more compact swings, such as Howie Kendrick, Wood's teammate in several Minor League stops, tend to negotiate the turf more quickly.

"Howie can wake up and hit in the middle of November," Wood said. "For me, it's going to take Spring Training to fine-tune some things. I'm not as quiet with my hands as Howie. It's learning your swing."

Wood, who celebrates his 23rd birthday on Sunday, remains the club's No. 1 prospect, followed closely by Adenhart. But Wood's 583 strikeouts in 549 Minor League games have raised a few eyebrows.

Manager Mike Scioscia looks at Wood's .350 on-base percentage in relation to his .282 batting average as an indicator that he's seeing the ball and drawing enough walks to supplement his .520 slugging percentage across five Minor League seasons.

Scioscia was impressed with the way Wood handled himself against the Rangers, "just missing" a pitch that traveled 395 feet to the warning track for an out before he unloaded against ex-Angels farmhand Warner Madrigal on an 0-1 fastball for the game-winner.

"Strikeouts are not necessarily an issue if they're offset with power and a certain amount of walks that make a player more effective," Scioscia said. "Obviously, the power numbers are there, and the walks have increased a little more.

"Pitch recognition is an issue for any young player. You have to get in your zone, understand what pitchers are trying to do to get you out. Brandon's got a chance to be an effective player. He's making a lot of strides."

Wood can cite Cuba as a major port in the journey.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.