ATLANTA Alex Wood stopped cataloging all his “Welcome to the Bigs” moments, yet this one sticks out.
The Atlanta Braves were playing the Sunday night ESPN game in Philadelphia. The Phillies’ stadium has side-by-side bullpens. As Wood warmed up for a nationally televised start on Aug. 4, here’s what happened:
“I’m matched up against Cliff Lee. He looked over and said ‘Good luck,’ and gave me a head nod,” Wood recalled recently. “And I was like, ‘That’s pretty awesome. That’s Cliff Lee.”
That sums up the first season of Wood as a major-leaguer. The former Ardrey Kell star is 22, two years removed from playing college ball for Georgia. He thoroughly understands how improbable it is that he not only reached the majors so fast, but to contribute to a World Series contender. After several regular-season starts, he’ll be in the bullpen when the Braves open their Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday at Turner Field.
But Wood is neither surprised nor rattled by his ascension. That’s who he’s been ever since his first baseball experience, when he told his dad, Richard, he couldn’t wait for coach-pitch to end because he belonged on a mound.
“I used to go to Charlotte Knights games a lot, and I remember one day watching a pitcher and saying, ‘I think I can do that. I could go out there and do that right now,’” Wood recently told the Observer. “Maybe I’m still that naïve kid at 16 or 17. But you’re here for a reason; nothing is given to you. Of course it’s surreal at first, and it takes a little bit to settle in, but you see you deserve to be here. So you fit in and you belong.
“If you don’t think you belong, you won’t be here very long.”
That’s similar to the message his dad often reinforces: That while the dream was making it to the majors, the goal is to stay. Wood had an exceptional August, with a 0.90 earned-run average in five starts. He then slipped in two September starts, and got himself ejected in a game in Washington for berating umpire C.B. Bucknor.
Wood was embarrassed and remorseful in a post-game interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“I kind of did some things, said some things, I shouldn’t have said,” Wood told the AJC. “Immediately regretted it once I got inside” the clubhouse.
By and large, Wood sounds older and wiser than 22.
“You don’t think, ‘Oh, gosh, look who I’m playing against!’ You think, ‘Get in your work and help the team win games.’ That’s the only way you can look at it,” Wood said.
“You have so many guys who can play up here, but the luck doesn’t fall in their favor – guys whose careers end in the minors.
“It takes someone not performing up here or getting hurt. And when that opportunity happens, you better take advantage. So many first impressions you have to make at every level, always somebody new watching. There are never off days, never a let-up.”
Four-month job interview
Wood can be as goofy as any kid when he’s on off time, but family and teammates say there’s a strident sense of order about him on the mound.
“You could always tell when it was time to get focused he would lock on to a task,’’ said Clemson linebacker Spencer Shuey, a two-sport star at South Mecklenburg who played with and against Wood for years growing up. “Every pitch he threw was deceptive because he threw them all the same way. You could tell early on that he had the talent to do great things.”
Wood strongly considered signing with Clemson, in part for the close ties he had to various Charlotte athletes there. But Georgia tugged on him.
His dad, not a college athlete, was a Bulldogs alum, and Alex grew up watching college football between the hedges.
Wood is a lefty with an unorthodox release. The ball comes off his delivery violently, almost bolo-like. His father says there was nothing contrived about that, it’s just how his son threw. But early on, and even into the majors, that motion surprised and disrupted batters.
The universal term for Wood’s motion is “funky.”
“I don’t think anyone could come up with that delivery,’’ said Braves manager Fredi Gonzales. “It’s just him and he repeats it, which is the correct thing even under stressful situations. It’s not your typical delivery. I don’t know how he got to that point, but I’m not going to mess with it.”
Wood now sees his unorthodox delivery as the reason he’s come this far.
“Those guys who have a gorgeous pitching motion, they’re throwing 98 (mph) with an incredible breaking ball,” he said. “And they win Cy Youngs. Everyone else has to be a little different.
“I’m funky and deceptive. Hitters all do something different, too, but it comes down to them getting in the position they need – front foot down and their hands back. Same with pitching: It’s getting in the position you need to be in regardless of how you get there.
“I end up in just about as good a position as anybody.”
That motion and deception caught pro scouts’ attention. His junior season at Georgia – just before he was draft-eligible – there were numerous teams monitoring his every start. It was the strangest, most stressful experience for a parent in the stands.
“If your kid is an accountant or a stockbroker, his (job) interview is one day,” Richard Woodsaid. “His job interview lasted four months. Every time he went out there, that’s what it was. It was much more stressful” than watching him pitch now with the Braves.
‘Funky,’ yet organized
Wood was flat-out angry that he wasn’t a first-round pick.
“That was a hard 24 hours for me. I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t a little bit hurt that I didn’t go in the first round,” said Wood, the Braves’ second-round pick in 2012. “I thought among the other left-handers that I definitely deserved to go in the first round. But it’s funny how things work out. In the bigger picture I wouldn’t have changed anything – except being 21st overall (first round) to the Braves.”
In his first major league season he has a 3-3 record, with an ERA of 3.13 over 77 2/3 innings.
Coming up through the Braves’ system the summer of 2012, he had a bird dog in Gonzales, who would constantly monitor reports about Wood’s progress. It got funny at one point when exasperated Braves scouts – coincidentally or perhaps not – started referring to Wood as “Robert’’ (his literal first name) rather than “Alex” (technically his middle name).
“I think it was them throwing a curve ball at me. I’m a little smarter than that,” Gonzales joked.
Something about Wood’s early results told Gonzales he had “it.”
“If you didn’t know he was a year removed from college, you’d think he was a three- or four-year veteran,’’ Gonzales said. “He’s always acted that way. It’s not an act. He’s confident in his ability. He’s a good kid, a good pitcher and a hell of a worker.’’
The worker aspect might speak to what Richard Wood describes as his son’s intensely organized nature. This is the kid whose closet was always just so, and his Braves cubicle reflects that now.
So Wood has embraced the video scouting provided at baseball’s highest level. It’s not so much viewing his own form as measuring the next lineup he’ll face and how those nine batters do or don’t succeed against a left-hander.
“It’s to break down what they hit and what they don’t in certain counts,” Wood said. “You have that in the back of your head, and when you get in trouble it’s there for you. You get the printout of what the next team did against left-handers and you go hitter-by-hitter of what you want to do.”
Wood gave up just three home runs in the regular season. His pitching is more precision than power.
“It’s the guys who miss small” who succeed as pitchers, Wood said. “It doesn’t really matter which pitches you throw if you avoid big mistakes. Big mistakes turn into home runs, and I’ve mostly given up singles. That allows you to go deeper into games.
“I’ve been able to do that so far, and that’s as much mental as physical. Mentally I feel like I’m ahead of the curve.”
That’s Wood, the thinker. Wood, the feeler, is about the giddy kick he gets pitching at Turner Field, surrounded by fellow Bulldogs loving his early success.
“When I walk off the mound half the stadium is barking, from all the Dawg fans,” Wood said.
“There’s nothing like it. I try to contain my smile until I get off the field. But the times that happens? Really, really special.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell
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