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Wood home again in Indians' opener

Wood home again in Tribe opener

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Kerry Wood won't be in the exact ballpark that inspired so many dreams of big league brilliance.

Then again, he won't be in the exact role he dreamed up for himself, either.

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For those who watched him whiff 20 Astros batters back in 1998, in one of the most memorable starting pitching performances by a rookie in Major League history, the notion of Wood-as-closer is still an odd one.

Heck, it's still odd for Wood, too.

Growing up in Irving, Texas, just northeast of Arlington, where the Indians will open their 2009 season against the Rangers on Monday, Wood was too inspired by Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan to pay much attention to the guys who came out of the bullpen for a living.

"I didn't know what relievers were," he said with a laugh.

Ryan didn't need any relievers the night of May 1, 1991, when he tossed his seventh and final no-hitter against the Blue Jays. And Wood, who was in the crowd at Arlington Stadium that night, thanks to a ticket he won in a grocery store giveaway, didn't need to look any further for inspiration. He wanted to be the next Ryan.

"I still have about 30 ticket stubs from that game laying around somewhere," Wood said. "I started picking them up [in the concourse] after the game."

Unfortunately for Wood, the injury bug snuffed out any visions of Ryan-esque grandeur long ago. It's a (relatively) new role for Wood now, with a new club. The Indians gave him a two-year, $20.5 million contract, with a vesting $11 million option for a third year, because they want him to be the dominant ninth-inning option they've lacked the past decade.

And as a result of a happy scheduling coincidence, Wood's first appearance in a Tribe uniform could occur in his own backyard -- a place Wood never got to visit in 11 years with the Cubs.

"It won't be the stadium I grew up pitching in, but I saw some games there as I got older in high school," Wood said. "It'll be nice pitching at home."

Wood is coming off a nice spring camp in which he impressed a group of Indians' decision-makers who were already high on his talents. In fact, when Wood reported to the Player Development Complex in Goodyear, Ariz., in mid-February, he was throwing so well that pitching coach Carl Willis had to tell him to rein it in a little.

Wood's body took care of that. Mild back soreness forced him to miss a few days of action and slightly delayed his start to the spring exhibition season.

"I had that little blip," Wood said, "but I think, in the long run, that's why I'm feeling as good as I'm feeling now."

Between his appearances in the Cactus League and his time spent on the back fields in Minor League intrasquad games, Wood feels he's had the necessary workload to prepare for the season ahead. His stuff, particularly his devastating slider, looked regular season-ready all spring to the naked eye, though Wood felt his breaking ball still needed work.

"The breaking pitches are tough to get a read on, because you can't get a grip on the ball and the [Arizona] air is so dry and thin," he said. "But I'm pleased with the way I've been able to command the cutter. The slider is still a pitch I need to work on. Just about every spring, I worry about my slider, but as soon as I get into some humidity it's where I need it to be. Overall, my arm feels good, and I'm throwing strikes."

Wood threw plenty of strikes for the Cubs in 2008, which was his first season in a closer's role. He saved 34 of 40 opportunities, largely because of his command of the strike zone. He struck out 84 batters and walked just 18 in 66 1/3 innings of work. But what more do you expect from a guy who has averaged 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings for his career?

The Indians have plenty of '08 statistical basis to be enamored with Wood, from his 2.45 ERA in appearances on no rest to his .107 opponent's average when reaching two strikes. But he also adds a certain, intangible quality to this club. General manager Mark Shapiro said Wood brings "leadership and professionalism" to the Tribe clubhouse, while catcher Kelly Shoppach said he brings "fear" to the opposing team.

As for Wood's take on his new surroundings, he'll probably always be a Cub at heart, because that's the organization that drafted and groomed him. But he's taken an immediate liking to this team, too.

"It's a great group of guys," he said. "A little bit quiet, but as we get to know each other better we'll probably open up a little more."

With Wood in tow, the Indians hope to make plenty of noise this year. And they'll begin the push to do so in Wood's hometown.

Pitching matchup
CLE: LHP Cliff Lee (22-3, 2.54 ERA in 2008)
What will Lee do for an encore after a remarkable '08 season in which he became the Indians' second Cy Young Award winner in as many years and their second 20-game winner in 34 years? The Indians aren't expecting Lee to turn in a duplicate of that campaign, but they do expect the 30-year-old Lee to be a steady, guiding hand at the top of the rotation. With former ace CC Sabathia long gone, the Indians are relying on Lee more than ever. They need him to set the tone for a rotation that enters the season with no shortage of question marks and concerns.

Lee certainly has the mentality for the job, as his unshakable consistency, in terms of fastball command and aggressiveness, carried him to new heights in '08. He was one of just seven pitchers since 1920 to win 22 of his first 25 decisions, and his ERA was the lowest by an AL left-hander this decade. There will, however, be a worry that Lee's career-high workload (223 1/3 innings) could affect him in '09.

Lee had a rough Spring Training camp, performance-wise, but he attributed most of his struggles to working on locating his fastball. He enters the season healthy and confident, and that's half the battle. It was an oblique injury early in the 2007 season that derailed Lee. He went 5-8 that season and was demoted to Triple-A. But looking at the totality of Lee's career, that season is more of a hiccup than a trend, as Lee won 46 games between 2004 and '06.

TEX: RHP Kevin Millwood (9-10, 5.07 ERA in 2008)
Millwood is making his fourth straight Opening Day start for the Rangers but still looking for his first victory in that role. He is 0-3 with a 4.50 ERA in his last three Opening Day games. He pitched six strong innings last season against the Mariners at Safeco Field, taking a 1-0 lead into the sixth before allowing two unearned runs. The Rangers ended up losing, 5-2.

Millwood was 5-3 with a 5.09 ERA in 13 starts at home and is 20-14 with a 5.11 ERA in 45 starts at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington over the past three years. He went 1-2 with a 6.48 ERA this spring, allowing 30 hits and eight walks in 25 innings while striking out 19. But he made it through the spring without a physical setback for the first time in three years.

Millwood pitched for the Indians in 2005, and won the American League ERA title before signing with the Rangers. He is 3-1 with a 4.56 ERA in four career starts against them. He made one start against them in 2008 and won, 9-4, on June 5, although he allowed four runs on nine hits in six innings.

Tidbits
The Indians are 57-51 all-time on Opening Day and have won each of their last two openers after dropping their previous four. ... This will mark the seventh time in eight years and the 12th time in 15 years that the Indians have opened on the road. ... This will mark the fifth time that the Tribe has opened against the Rangers. The last time it happened was April 27, 1995. ... This ties for the second-latest start to the season for the Indians in their history. That 11-6 victory over the Rangers in the strike-shortened '95 season was the latest, but the Indians also opened on April 6 in 1999, in Anaheim.

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Up next
• Tuesday: Off-day
• Wednesday: Indians (Fausto Carmona, 8-7, 5.44 in 2008) at Rangers (Vicente Padilla, 14-8, 4.74 in 2008), 8:05 p.m. ET
• Thursday: Indians (Carl Pavano, 4-2, 5.77 in 2008) at Rangers (TBD), 2:05 p.m. ET

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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