June 18, 2016
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Love is blind.
When it comes to pitching at the Major League level it’s colorblind as well.
It certainly is in the case of right-handed pitcher Blake Wood.
A weekend starter in two of his three seasons on the Flats (2005, ‘06), Wood thinks nothing of donning a red uniform with the occasional black trim and has become an important part of the Cincinnati Reds’ bullpen.
During last week’s visit by the Reds to Atlanta, Wood, who turns 31 on Aug. 8 and is in his fifth Major League season with his third team, pitched in the first two of the four-game series — both Reds victories — throwing three scoreless innings and allowing one hit and three walks while striking out four. On Tuesday he picked up his first save of the 2016 season and his first since 2011, pitching out of a bases loaded, none out jam to hold a 3-1 lead.
“It’s cool especially because it’s the last year of Turner Field and I grew up coming here as a kid,” said the Suwanee native and former North Gwinnett High School star. “To be able to get a save here with a lot of my friends and family here and the last time I’ll ever get to play here, it’s a cool feeling.”
Wood has been cool and pitched with a hot hand, as the back-to-back scoreless appearances against the Braves are part of a 10-appearance stretch in which he’s gone 2-0 with the save, while pitching to a 1.29 ERA (two earned runs in 14 innings), striking out 18 while walking six and limiting batters to a .204 batting average. Five of those outings were more than one inning and the stretch has shaved more than a run off his season ERA, lowering it to 3.41 from 4.43.
“It’s mostly just mechanical consistency and mental consistency,” said Wood, who is 11-8 for his career with a 4.18 ERA in 147 appearances, all in relief. “Just making sure that I stay with the plan and am confident in myself and just go right at them.”
It’s a formula and results reminiscent of his days pitching for Georgia Tech.
Wood pitched three seasons for Tech, going 22-7 with a 4.46 ERA in 52 games (41 starts), and shone brightest his final two years, going 10-1 and 11-4. He’s the last Yellow Jacket to record back-to-back 10-win seasons, and anchored the ‘06 staff, the most recent GT team to win 50 games and to get to the College World Series.
He got a reminder of those glory days every day the team came to Turner Field.
“We drive right by Georgia Tech on the bus coming down here so, obviously, I think about it when I’m down here,” said Wood, who still lives in Atlanta during the offseason. “Obviously, going to the College World Series was huge and then, the camaraderie that we had with our team. We had an awesome group of guys. A lot of us still hang out to this day. A lot of guys are still in the Atlanta area and are in a fantasy football league together so we’ve got like 10 of us. So that’s how we all keep in contact with each other. We had some really good teams every year. For the most part that’s what I remember, just how fun it was and how much I enjoyed being there.”
The Jackets enjoyed having Wood on the mound.
After a freshman season that saw him go 1-2 with a 7.84 ERA in 15 games (four starts), Blake had a breakthrough year as a sophomore and dominated as a junior. He went a combined 21-5 with a 3.99 ERA and the Jackets were 26-10 in his starts.
He began 2005 as the Sunday starter, getting off to a 7-0 start, including pitching Coach Danny Hall’s 500th win at Georgia Tech against Wake Forest on March 13 at Russ Chandler Stadium. He’d finish the season pitching on Saturdays, going 2-0. The next season, Wood made the jump to Friday night, anchoring the staff for the Jackets who reached No. 1 in the nation. He made 19 starts, going 11-4 with a 4.46.
Wood really hit his stride in the postseason.
In his three seasons he was 4-1 in eight postseasons starts, pitching to a 3.44 ERA (20 earned runs in 52 ⅓ innings) but those numbers are inflated due to his lone start as a freshman when he allowed five runs in two innings in the ACC Tournament final against Florida State. In ‘05 and ‘06, Wood was 4-0, with a 2.68 ERA (15 earned runs in 50 ⅓ innings). In his three no-decisions, Wood left trailing only one time, and that deficit lasted until the Yellow Jackets batted in the bottom half of the inning he exited.
Included in his Regional matchups were a complete-game six-hitter against South Carolina in the ‘05 Atlanta Regional, a 7 ⅓-inning win in the ‘06 Atlanta Regional against Stetson and current Cleveland Indians ace and 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, and a 7.0-inning no-decision against Tennessee in the ‘05 Super Regional against Tennessee.
The latter saw him pitch to a draw against Kansas City Royals star Luke Hochevar, with whom he would team during parts of 2010 and ‘11.
Wood, who was a third-round selection of the Royals in 2006, admitted that the June 10, 2006 matchup at Russ Chandler Stadium made for interesting conversation with Hochevar.
“I used to give him heck about that all the time because we were beating them 1-0 when we both came out of the game,” said Wood of the game that ended in a 3-2 Tennessee victory. “We ended up losing the game but whenever it got brought up somehow I would make sure to let him know that I outpitched him that day. He was, still is, a great pitcher, as is Kluber. They’re both doing alright for themselves.”
Wood also is doing alright for himself, but it didn’t come easy.
He fought back from Tommy John surgery. The operation repaired the torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow but cost him the entire 2012 season. It was a physically- and mentally-draining battle and contributed to his being waived by K.C., then by Cleveland before signing a one-year deal with Cincinnati last November.
“Physically I didn’t feel very good for probably 14, 15 months,” he recalled. “It took a long time to basically re-learn how to pitch. It was just believing that I could still be a good pitcher and trusting that if I kept working hard it was going to work out and it has.
“Early on physically it was more difficult but later on, once I felt healthy and I wasn’t performing well, that’s when mentally it became really difficult,” he continued. “I had a lot of issues with confidence at the time just because I didn’t know why I was pitching the way I was pitching even though I was healthy. So that was pretty difficult to get through but I think it’s made me stronger in the end.”
Wood is strong at the end and in the middle of games and has been a dependable piece for a Reds’ bullpen, which has struggled — entering play on June 14, its 6.28 ERA was the highest in the Majors.
While things haven’t always been fun, the opportunity to play in the National League has.
“I enjoy the game a little bit more,” he said. “There’s a lot more going on as far as the strategy goes. That’s enjoyable. Then, just to be able to go to a lot of cities I’ve never really been to before, see some new stadiums. So that’s probably been the most fun.”
He’s found his new hometown of Cincinnati fun as well.
“I think it just seems like a big small town. There’s stuff to do but it doesn’t seem overwhelmingly big,” he said. “And it’s close to home so it’s nice that family is able to come up and watch and visit.”