Wood struggling to get back to old form

His initials are K and W. The K’s have been there, but the W’s have been sparse.

Because his fastball was hitting the high 90s and the Cubs were winning early this year, it seemed like Kerry Wood was back to being the pitcher everyone expected before he had Tommy John surgery in 1999. After a year where everybody knew he was still not 100%, big things were predicted for this season.

But his 6-2 win against Arizona yesterday was first in three weeks and just his second of the season. Although he ranks second in the NL in strikeouts with 78, he has won just twice in nine starts, and his ERA remains high (4.94, and it was over 5.00 going into yesterday’s game).

The reason? Control problems. Yesterday he walked six in six innings. (“I was trying not to overthrow and not throw it by everybody. I was effectively wild, you could say,” Wood said.) The previous outing, he walked seven. He has walked 33 this season, tied for the most in the NL along with Atlanta’s Tom Glavine and Florida’s Ryan Dempster. (Yes, that’s right, Glavine.)

Things got so bad that, earlier this week, Cubs manager Don Baylor arranged for Wood to speak to legendary Nolan Ryan on the phone (Baylor and Ryan were Angels teammates in the late ’70s).

Wood said the conversation was “good,” saying they were “just trying to see what’s going on with me.” He also sent Ryan some tapes to watch.

The two are similar. Both hard-throwing Texans who had early control problems. Ryan struggled with control early in his career; he walked 202 batters in 1974 and 204 in 1977 before turning the corner in 1979.

Isn’t it ironic, then, that when the Cubs pitching was carrying the club to first place in the NL Central, Wood struggled; then, after losing eight consecutive games that dropped them to the middle of the pack, it was Wood who broke the losing streak.

Speaking of the streak, Chicago hadn’t had one that long since, oh, way back last September. Fittingly, it was a former Cub who helped extend the club’s woes on Friday. After receiving a minute-long standing ovation from the Wrigley Field fans, Mark Grace went 2-for-4 and knocked in two runs in Arizona’s 4-0 win.

Wood has been joking for months that he was going knock Grace, his good friend and former teammate, down the first time he faced him.

“What are you going to do, try to hit him in a muscle?” someone asked him.

“Hit him in a muscle?” Wood asked. “How are you gonna do that?”

Wood’s first pitch was indeed high and tight but he ended up walking Grace twice.

UNDER THE RADAR: Milwaukee’s pitching staff has quietly put together quite a season so far. The Brewers rank second in the NL with a 3.90 team ERA, playing in a ballpark that seems to play hitter-friendly (the Brewers rank fifth in hitting, even with their best hitter, Geoff Jenkins, missing most of the month of May).

Rookie Ben Sheets (4-3, 3.19 ERA) had won four in a row before losing yesterday to the Pirates. Jamey Wright and Jimmy Haynes each have four wins and have combined for 72 strikeouts. Paul Rigdon has an ERA under 4.00. David Weathers has an ERA of 1.57 and middle reliever Chad Fox has an ERA of 0.60. Even though closer Curtis Leskanic has a 4.05 ERA, he has converted five of six save opportunities.

They’ve helped the Brewers to a 23-19 mark and they are just a game and a half out of first in the NL Central.

UNDER THE RADAR II: Sure, Pedro Martinez led AL in ERA (minimum five decisions); that’s no surprise. But look at the guy right behind them: Minnesota’s Joe Mays. Mays beat Baltimore yesterday to go 6-2. He joins teammate Brad Radke (7-1) as six-game winners in the Twins rotation. Last year, Minnesota didn’t have two six-game winners in its rotation until July 9.

CHATTER: The Yankees stopped Ichiro Suzuki’s hitting streak at 23 games, one shy of the Seattle franchise record set by Joey Cora in 1997. Suzuki went 0-for-4, going hitless for the only third time in 42 games …

After Barry Bonds hit three home runs against Atlanta last night, Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said, “If there’s any doubt about who the best player in the game has been or is now, it was pretty much answered tonight. He’s the best player in the game, bar none” …

Bonds might be the best player in the game, but Bubba Trammell must THINK he is. He had a career-high six RBI last night …

San Diego’s Rickey Henderson became the second player ever to reach 2,200 career runs scored, but no mention of his milestone was made to the Olympic Stadium crowd of 7,297. Perhaps the PA announcer didn’t want to wake them. Those who stayed awake were treated to a 20-7 drubbing, the most runs allowed in Expos franchise history …

Five Blue Jays collected two hits apiece last night. But none of them were named Raul Mondesi or Carlos Delgado, their two best hitters …

Oakland has now won five in a row. Interestingly, Jason Giambi has recently been the DH, with Robin Jennings playing first …

What a great pitcher-hitter showdown they had in Philly last night. Staff ace Robert Person, going for a rare complete game, faced J.D. Drew, whom, you remember, spurned Philadelphia after being selected No. 2 overall in the 1997 draft. He has nine more homers and 11 more RBI than any Phillies hitter, and Philadelphia fans still boo him every time he makes a catch or comes to the plate. This time he came up with his team trailing 3-2; he already had hit a two-run homer off Person, and now worked the count full.

Person struck him out, sending Phillies fans into delirium.