Wood's call to majors brings him home

Photo by Brandon Brigman

Photo by Brandon Brigman

ATLANTA -- Blake Wood didn't check the Kansas City schedule when it came out. What would have been the point? He figured to have little chance of pitching for the Royals this season.

Wood's prospects changed with a move to the bullpen and an impressive spring training. But looking at the Royals schedule was still the furthest thing from his mind.

In fact, that didn't change even when he was promoted from Class AAA Omaha by the Royals on May 12. All Wood was interested in was getting to Kansas City as fast as he could.

But it wasn't long after the former North Gwinnett and Georgia Tech standout made his major league debut that night that the inquiries started coming. Could he get them tickets in June?

That's when Wood found out that the Royals would be playing an interleague series against the Braves at Turner Field starting tonight. Kansas City's second trip to Atlanta ever was coming at a perfect time.

"I didn't even know," Wood said. "But it worked out pretty sweet."

The 24-year-old right-hander will have plenty of support during his homecoming, but his pass list isn't overflowing.

"I think I'll be able to spread it out over the weekend so it won't be too big for each game," Wood said.

Although Georgia Tech played Georgia there each season, Wood hasn't pitched at Turner Field. As the Yellow Jackets' ace his final two seasons, he started weekend games.

Now, Wood doesn't know when he'll pitch. That, along with his instant success, is why he likes pitching out of the bullpen so much.

"I think it fits me perfectly," Wood said. "I have the mentality for it. I like pitching when the game is on the line and being able to go right after hitters. You don't have to hold back and there is no waiting five days to pitch. It's worked out great."

That's obvious. A struggling starter in Class AA a year ago with injury issues, Wood is now a key member of a major league bullpen, often pitching the eighth inning, and one of the Royals' hopes for the future.

Wood had a scoreless inning against Cleveland the night he was promoted and has been getting the job done on a regular basis. Only once has he been roughed up, in a home game against Detroit, and he quickly bounced back from that.

In 16 appearances covering 161/3 innings, Wood has a 3.31 ERA and opponents are batting just .222. He has been scored on in only four of his outings.

Wood isn't the same kind of pitcher he was when drafted in the third round by the Royals out of Georgia Tech in 2006 or during his injury-plagued minor league career as a starter. That is shown by the fact he has just five strikeouts for the Royals.

Gone is the big curveball, which has been replaced by an easier to control slider. Instead of his four-seam fastball, he now throws only a two-seamer. He still has good velocity, though, giving opportunities to mix in an occasional changeup.

"It's weird, but I actually throw harder now than I did," the 6-foot-5 pitcher said. "I guess it's because I don't have to pace myself."

Wood is no longer shooting for strikeouts, though. He is concentrating on throwing strikes and pitching to contact. He has issued just five walks, with no multi-walk outings.

"He's come in here banging strikes with good stuff," Royals interim manager Ned Yost said. "He hasn't been intimidated by any of this."

When Wood was promoted from Omaha, where he was 2-1 with five saves and a 2.16 ERA, Trey Hillman was the Royals manager and he had been the one impressed by Wood's work in spring training.

But Hillman was fired two days after Wood arrived and the rookie pitcher had to win someone else over.

"It was tough to see him go," Wood said. "He was a great guy and I knew he had a belief in me."

Yost, though, quickly became a fan as well.

"He's been given any opportunity and run with it," Yost said. "He's shown a lot of poise."

The Royals always knew that Wood had a ton of potential. The problem was keeping him healthy, with the biggest issue back trouble.

"The key for me is staying healthy and not getting hurt," Wood said. "That's what held me back."

The Royals think that pitching in relief will help there. It already got Wood to the majors ahead of schedule.

Wood grew up a Braves fan, but didn't make many trips to see them play.

"I mainly watched on TV," he said.

Now Wood may get to pitch himself at Turner Field thanks to some good timing and interleague play.