CHICAGO – Four weeks ago, Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio and staff assistant Mike Borzello met with pitcher Travis Wood and extended him a challenge.
It was the same message they had delivered to Wood during spring training: Take your game to the next level.
“Woody, you have to take that next step and be that guy,” Bosio recalled. “We need this out of you.”
Wood has put in the work – video sessions on his off days, pouring over scouting reports and improving his secondary pitches – to leave behind an inconsistent 2012 season that often left him disappointed after starts, and his remarkable turnaround was validated Saturday.
Before the Cubs’ 4-1 win against the Pirates, manager Dale Sveum addressed the team in the clubhouse and handed Wood the news he had made the National League All-Star team. The All-Star honor is the first for Wood, who will be the Cubs’ lone representative at the All-Star Game on July 16 at Citi Field in New York.
“It’s a goal you set as a player to play like an All-Star, be an All-Star and to be selected, it’s outstanding,” Wood said with a smile.
Wood has been a bright spot in an otherwise bleak season on the North Side, providing consistency the Cubs have desperately needed. Although he sports a 5-6 record, Wood leads baseball with 16 quality starts in 17 outings and a 2.69 ERA, which ranks ninth in the majors. In 12 of his starts Wood has allowed two earned runs or less, and opponents are hitting only .192 against the left-hander.
“It’s a great story,” Bosio said. “He’s busted his tail. He’s really evolved into a top-notch major league pitcher, one of the best lefties that other teams have to look at. He’s not just another left-handed starter. It’s attributed to a lot of hard work.”
What makes Wood’s ascent so impressive is how far he’s come in a year. A disappointed Wood was sent down to Triple-A to start last season – Bosio said they even considered sending him to Double-A – to tinker with his pitches and try to become a reliable pitcher. He eventually made his season debut in May but never put together a good run of starts. At one point in July, Wood surrendered eight, seven and eight runs, respectively, in three consecutive starts.
It was a tough learning curve for Wood, who was part of an offseason trade in 2011 that sent lefty reliever Sean Marshall, a fan favorite and one of the best relievers in baseball, to the Reds. At the time it appeared Cincinnati was on the winning end of the deal, but Wood’s development this season into one of the best pitchers in either league has given the Cubs another core player to build around. With starting pitching at a premium, Wood and Jeff Samardzija provide a potentially great 1-2 combination in the rotation.
“It definitely feels good when you think about it like that because they did give up a lot,” Wood said of the trade. “ … For it to pay off like it has, hopefully it continues over the years to come.”
Wood’s evolution from Triple-A pitcher to All-Star required the 26-year-old to build a repertoire that consisted of more than throwing fastball and cutters to his glove side, as he did during his two mediocre seasons with the Reds. Adding a breaking ball and two-seam fastball combined while learning to pitch to his arm side has helped Wood become an All-Star. If the Cubs’ offense showed up in more of his starts, currently averaging 3.18 runs when Wood’s on the mound which is tied for seventh-lowest in the majors, he might have double-digit wins at this point.
“This guy pitches like he’s 6-foot-6, 230 pounds out there; he’s got a presence out there,” Bosio said of Wood. “He pitches a lot bigger than he is because he’s got confidence in the stuff that he has, confidence in the scouting report. ... There’s more room for success and to get even better than he is now.”
White Sox reliever Jesse Crain and starting pitcher Chris Sale will be joining Wood at the All-Star Game, both having been named to the American League team. Crain was voted onto the team by the AL players, finishing second for relievers behind Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, while Sale was a manager’s selection.
Sale, 24, earned his second consecutive All-Star selection in spite of a sub-.500 record, largely due to a Sox offense that averages 2.56 runs during his starts, second-fewest in baseball. However, Sale owns a 2.78 ERA and has struck out 123 hitters in 113 1/3 innings.
When Sox director of travel Ed Cassin called Crain and gave him the good news that he made his first All-Star team, the right hander said he was close to tears.
“To be playing, this is my 10th season, and get recognized is pretty amazing,” Crain told the pool reporter. “Being a setup guy and not being a closer, that means a lot. It means a lot to be voted in by the players. I was little upset and nervous going on the DL, bad timing and all that. But it’s an honor.”
It’s the first All-Star selection for Crain, although he will not be able to pitch in the game because he is on the 15-day disabled list with a right shoulder strain. Crain’s dominant season includes a 0.74 ERA, leading AL relievers, with 46 strikeouts in 36 2/3 innings. Crain, 32, set the Sox’s franchise record with 29 consecutive scoreless appearances from April 17-June 22.
“It’s good for all the guys who pitch the innings I do, in the seventh and eighth, it gives everyone a chance to make it.,” Crain said. “You could probably count on one hand the times in the last 10 years a non-closer made [the All-Star team].”
• Meghan Montemurro covers the White Sox and Cubs for Shaw Media. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Sox Insider and Inside the Cubs blogs at NWHerald.com and on Twitter @Sox_Insider and @InsideTheCubs.