Closer race a tight one for Cubs' trio

Closer race a tight one for Cubs

PHOENIX -- In past springs, if you wanted to watch Kerry Wood pitch, you often had to sneak over to the back field at HoHoKam Park. The right-hander was usually on a rehab assignment.

On Thursday, Wood made his third Cactus League appearance, facing the Oakland Athletics, and gave up one hit and struck out one in one inning.

"It's nice not to be on the back field hiding from [the media]," Wood said Thursday. "It's nice to get into games and get your work done and be ready the next day."

This is a different spring for the right-hander because he's not dealing with elbow problems or shoulder soreness or even bruises suffered while falling out of his hot tub (that was last year).

"It's nice to be healthy and feeling good," Wood said.

Wood finds himself now in a three-way race with Bob Howry and Carlos Marmol for the Cubs' closer's job. The radar guns have clocked Wood's fastball at 98 mph. When was the last time he hit that?

"Probably never -- I don't know," Wood said, smiling. "It's not really a goal. The ball's been coming out pretty good."

Howry pitched the fourth on Thursday, giving up one hit, but the runner was erased on a snazzy double play by shortstop Ryan Theriot and second baseman Mike Fontenot. Wood followed in the fifth. By pitching earlier in the game, Wood and Howry have a chance to see better hitters.

"It doesn't matter," Wood said about when he pitches. "Spring Training is really just organized practice. It doesn't matter to me."

Relievers have to be ready to pitch every day. Wood is getting used to that. On Thursday, he felt as if he could've pitched more than just the one inning. All three closer candidates have tried to downplay the competition.

"I've said the same thing from the start of camp -- I approach this like any camp and preparing for the season," Howry said. "I'm not going to go out there and try to do something different than I've done in the past just because of the situation."

Wood feels the same.

"Honestly, I haven't really thought about [closing]," Wood said. "It's not on my mind when I get up to go to work. It's just get ready for that day. I think the other two guys are the same way. They get ready every day and they're going to go out and do the job whether it's the seventh, eighth, or ninth. Those are all important innings.

"Obviously, the ninth is a little more nerve-wracking. Bobby is the only one of the three with experience doing that. Me and Carlos are going in blind, but [Marmol] closed some games this winter, so I'm the only one who hasn't done it yet."

Wood has thought about it.

"It'd be fun, nerve-wracking as well," Wood said. "You've got a lead or cough it up or we end up losing the game. It's solely on your shoulders. It's a tough spot to be in. Every team has one, and every guy who closes a game goes through the ups and downs of being a closer. It's not so much the day you give it up, but what you do the next day. It's a different mentality, but it's still important innings at the end of the game."

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Wood saw how Rod Beck handled the highs and lows of the closer's job when Beck pitched for the Cubs from 1998-99.

"He was the best," Wood said of Beck, who saved 51 games in '98, Wood's first season, and one of his best. Wood won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in '98, going 13-6 with 233 strikeouts. He also had a 20-strikeout game.

"[Beck] was the best at shaking it off," Wood said. "When he came in the next day, he was ready to go to work and completely forgot about what happened the day before. That's what you have to do. It's easier said than done."

How long did it take Wood to get over a bad start?

"About a day," said the right-hander, who has started 178 games, and didn't switch to being a full-time reliever until last year. "Once you throw your bullpen in between starts, you figure out what you want to work on. It usually took a day or so. It depends on how bad [the start] was."

This was a different offseason for Wood. He actually took some time off and didn't have to spend his winter rehabbing.

"I wasn't working on any particular body part -- it was just getting in shape," Wood said of his offseason workouts.

Marmol had been scheduled to pitch Wednesday against Arizona, but the Cubs ran out of innings and he threw a side session. All went well. Lately, the team's problems haven't been the closer, but the seventh and eighth innings. On Thursday, the Athletics scored two runs in the eighth to post a 2-1 win over the Cubs.

"We talk so much about the closer situation," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "Do you all notice what's happening in these games? The eighth inning is getting away from us and you don't need a closer. You can talk all you want about the closer situation, but you better get setup people who get you to the closer. Now you don't need them."

True, but whichever two pitchers don't get the closer's job -- and someone will be tabbed as "The Man" by mid-March -- will then switch to setup, and that's a good situation for the Cubs. And they'll all be pitching on the main field.

Wood has been nonchalant about the closer's job.

"I've been able to get excited before in the past, and things fall apart," he said. "I take it as it comes. I feel great, and really that's the only thing I'm worried about now."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.