By Mike Lopresti
June 8, 2015 — Somewhere deep in Blake Wood’s memory bank is the low point. The bad day in the long struggle that was 2014, when nothing went right and baseball became a horror show.
“I think I had an outing where I walked four straight guys, threw like two strikes. Something I had never done in my life,” he said. “It was like, `What am I doing?’
“But it never got to the point where I knew I couldn’t get it done. I knew something had to give. I knew if I could get in the right situation and with the right people, I could figure it out again.”
We mention then — he walked 31 batters in under 43 minor league innings last season, after a brief and aborted stint in Cleveland — because look at now.
At last count, Wood tied for the lead the International League with 15 saves; a rejuvenated and reliable pitcher with 29 strikeouts in 23.2 innings, and a knack for slamming the door in the ninth inning. Or as Indians’ manager Dean Treanor said, “It’s very nice to just hand him the ball and sit down and relax.
“I really, really like this guy, and he’s going to help us in Pittsburgh, and that’s the bottom line.”
Indeed, it seems only a matter of time before the call comes from the Pirates, for Wood to lend an arm in the National League Central race. That should be the next turn in a typical baseball tale; typical because of the ups and the downs, the sunny days and stormy nights, the young dreams and the harsh realities. Wood is 29, with some scars and disappointments to show. And also, a comeback in progress, having learned that the only way to survive and thrive in baseball is one day at a time.
“You don’t want to go in expecting anything from this game, because the game is too difficult,” he said recently, sitting at his locker and packing for the Indians’ current road trip. “There are so many things that can happen. You can do everything right and you can still fail, and that’s hard for a lot of people to grasp. It’s hard for me to grasp.
“It’s not necessarily washing it away, but learning from the experiences I had last year, knowing it’s not the end of the world when things don’t go your way. It’s been a hard lesson for a lot of us to learn. It’s taken me awhile to learn that.”
So it’s been a journey?
Where to start? How about the kid growing up outside Atlanta, worshiping the Braves, and their famed pitchers? Wood’s first autograph, at 13, came from John Smoltz. “It was my glove,” he said. “So my dad probably still has it somewhere.”
Soon, the trail went to Georgia Tech, and a trip in 2006 to the College World Series, where the Yellow Jackets led 14 of 18 innings but were eliminated in two games. “We lost two absolute heartbreakers,” he said. “A lot of the guys, when we get together now, it still gets brought up.”
Then there was the third round draft pick by Kansas City, years spent in the Royals system, his one major league save somewhere back there in 2011. Tommy John surgery in 2012. A trade to the Cleveland Indians, and a golden opportunity in 2014.
Odd story about that one. Wood learned he had made the Cleveland opening day roster – while standing on the mound waiting for a pitching change in a spring training game in Arizona. That’s when manager Terry Francona decided to surprise him with the news. “Definitely,” Wood said, “a cool way to find out.”
But the news didn’t stay good for long. He started well but hit a rough patch and was gone from the Indians by the end of April. Then he labored through a minor league tour all over the map, from Columbus to Omaha to Wilmington to Arkansas. When searching for a 2015 opportunity, he understood his career needed a reboot, and there was one organization that particularly appealed to him. He had noticed what the Pirates had done with pitchers at the crossroads.
“They either got back to where they were or better than they were. I knew it wasn’t a coincidence, that something they were doing was working,” Wood said. “It’s a matter of getting with the right people, knowing people believe in you and they have a plan for you and they know what to do to help you, and then just buying in and staying confident and going with it.”
The plan was to work on command of his fastball, and the willingness to trust his secondary pitches. Just look where he’s gone.
Indians’ pitching coach Stan Kyles:
He understands now he’s got to be a pitcher, and not just a thrower. He’s gotten away for a long time with just going on pure stuff.
It’s been a joy to watch him grow. He’s been through the wars. He’s grateful for those times. He doesn’t look back at it with bitterness. He understands that for him, this is a process he had to go through, and he’s doing everything he can to get himself prepared for the big leagues. You don’t see guys like him all the time. Guys like him stick out, guys that are willing to put everything they have into it. You like to see those guys rewarded. He’s an easy guy for root for.”
“There’s a couple of times we had him at a hundred and 101 (miles an hour). That’s very sexy.
“He’s not afraid. He’s not afraid to face anybody. He’s not afraid to throw over the plate. There’s just a lot of good things going on with him. I think he’s driven to get back there and I think he’s driven to show he belongs there.”
Both Kyles and Treanor pointed to Wood’s 14th save as something of a rite of passage. He had suffered his worst outing of the season three days before and once, that might have lingered. This time, he dispatched Buffalo in the ninth inning with 10 pitches, nine of them strikes, using all his arsenal. Not just steady 97 mile-an-hour heat, but the slider here, the split finger fastball there.
“I knew I was looking at a big league pitcher,” Kyles said.
“That consistency will be the final thing they need to see,” Treanor said of the Pirates.
Wood has cherished the chance Indianapolis has given him as a closer.
I think it’s what any reliever wants to do,” he said. “You want to be the guy at the end of the game, when no one’s going to bail you out. It’s just you, and hopefully you’re shaking the manager’s hands a couple of minutes later.”
He mentioned last July, during the dark days, when he watched the All-Star Game and saw an interview with Derek Jeter. One answer stayed with him.
“He said he doesn’t have expectations. He puts in the work every day and once he gets on the field, he just plays as hard as he can and he knows over time, things are going to work out,” Wood said. “I’ve tried to take that mentality into this year.”
He found out baseball works much like life. Worry and regret usually get you nowhere. Having a purpose is the gas pedal, although talent to go with it doesn’t hurt, either.
“Last year I lost a lot of confidence in myself. But I knew that if I kept working hard and staying positive, then things would end up working out for me.
“I’ve been able to turn the page.”
That goes double for a closer, who maybe more than any player needs selective amnesia. Yesterday’s blown save stays there.
You can’t get too caught up with, ‘Oh we have a one-run lead. I can’t give up a hit, or I can’t walk this guy. I can’t do this, I can’t do that.’ Because that’s when things go awry. That’s been my problem in the past, worrying about stuff that can happen, and it hasn’t happened yet.”
Know what probably happens soon? The call from the Pirates. Not that he’s anxious.
“I’ve been there before. I’ve had success at the major leagues. I know that if I’m consistent, I can get anybody out,” he said. “I just try to control what I can control, which is every time they give the ball to me, get the job done.”
The call might have come already, had the Pittsburgh bullpen not been so solid.
“No question, that phone’s going to ring,” Treanor said. “It’s just a matter of when.”
Mike Lopresti is a Ball State University graduate and Richmond, Ind. native and resident. He was a sports columnist for Gannett newspapers and USA Today for 31 years, and covered 30 World Series and 33 Major League Baseball All-Star Games. He is a voter for Baseball Hall of Fame. When he retired he was 16th in nation in seniority on Baseball Writers Association of America.