CHICAGO – By nearly any metric, Cubs left-hander Travis Wood put together a stellar first half.
Whenever a player can include his name among all-time greats Fergie Jenkins and Greg Maddux, as Wood can, he is doing something right. For Wood, it meant posting a 2.80 ERA – 10th best in the National League – with a WHIP of 1.03, good enough for eighth lowest in the NL.
Wood enters the All-Star break, which he will spend part of in New York as the Cubs’ lone representative in Tuesday’s All-Star Game, with plenty of momentum. His 17 quality starts lead the majors while tying the franchise record (shared with Jenkins, Maddux and Bill Hands) and he fell one out short of becoming the first in franchise history to have 18 quality starts before the All-Star break.
It doesn’t diminish what he did Sunday against the Cardinals without his best stuff, holding them to three runs in 5 2/3 innings despite 10 hits. However, the Cubs couldn’t pull out the win after tying the game in the eighth inning against St. Louis, ultimately losing 10-6. Despite some ugly first half moments, the Cubs (42-51) have four more wins than they did at this point last season.
“When a guy has done what Travis has done for this long a period of time, that’s our horse, that’s our most consistent guy all year,” manager Dale Sveum said. “This is our horse that’s kept us in every single ball game and has given us a chance to win every game.”
Wood will also have an opportunity to pitch in the All-Star Game. Although he started Sunday, Wood will remain on the All-Star NL roster and be available to pitch up to one inning on Tuesday, which would be his normal day for a side session.
"If it happens, it happens because I am available," Wood said. "I'm going to into it expecting to but if not, I won't be disappointed or anything. I'll understand. We'll see what happens."
While Wood has exceeded expectations this season, he will be challenged in the final months of the season to replicate the success he’s had through his first 19 starts. With president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer prepared to deal the Cubs’ best major league trade chips, such as pitchers Matt Garza and Kevin Gregg and outfielder Nate Schierholtz, the onus will be on younger players like Wood to prevent the Cubs from spiraling into a 100-loss team. A number of Wood's starts in the second half could come against the Cardinals, who the Cubs still face 12 more times. On Sunday, Wood proved he's capable of limiting a dangerous Cardinals offense even when he's not at his best.
"I felt good, the command of all my pitches was there," Wood said of his outing against St. Louis. "They were just putting some good swings and hits together."
A poor second half by Wood could cast doubts on whether he can be considered part of the core moving forward, which includes Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Jeff Samardzija. Before this season, Wood, 26, owned a 17-23 career record with a 4.22 ERA in 65 games (61 starts).
However, Wood will surely struggle at some point in the second half, and fatigue could become an issue. He’s only 33 1/3 innings away from matching his career-high innings pitched in the majors which was set last year with the Cubs. But Wood has raised the expectations moving forward, finally displaying consistency the Cubs – and the Reds during his two seasons with Cincinnati – have been waiting for.
“The bottom line, the player has to be very coachable,” Sveum said of Wood. “He took to his gameplan and sticking to a gameplan and obviously learning to throw to his arm side. … Those are a lot of the things that go into for change of scenery. The guy still has to understand these are things that need to be done to be successful.”
Wood’s final 19 starts – give or take a couple – give him the chance to prove his first-half success isn’t a fluke and that he deserves consideration as one of baseball’s best left-handed starting pitchers.
• Meghan Montemurro covers the White Sox and Cubs for Shaw Media. Write to her at email@example.com. Read the Sox Insider and Inside the Cubs blogs at NWHerald.com and on Twitter @Sox_Insider and @InsideTheCubs.