To both his former and current manager, Alex Wood possesses the best kind of self-confidence.
It’s rooted in composure, not cockiness. Reinforced by experience, and not ego. Sometimes, it’s belied by his good-natured disposition and soft smile off the mound. But especially at this time of year, amid the pressure of a postseason stage, it’s a burning inner belief that gets stoked all over again.
“He feels he’s always the best option,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said with a smile Sunday. “Which as a major league ballplayer, is a good thing.”
Roberts would know. From 2015-18, Wood was a key piece of the Dodgers’ pitching staff, a one-time All-Star who contributed to four division titles and two National League pennants.
After suffering an injury-plagued 2019 campaign following a trade to the Cincinnati Reds, Wood came back to Los Angeles as a free agent last year to help the Dodgers win the World Series.
“A lot of good memories here,” Wood said. “Obviously a lot of postseason runs.”
On Monday, however, Wood will find himself opposite his former club in a critical October clash, hoping to deal a major blow to the Dodgers’ repeat chances as the San Francisco Giants’ starting pitcher for a pivotal Game 3 in the National League Division Series.
“I love these types of atmospheres this time of year,” Wood said. “It’s something that really pushes you forward. You really learn a lot about yourself.”
It will be the 30-year-old left-hander’s first playoff outing since last October’s World Series clincher.
Despite being limited by injuries and relegated to the bullpen during his return to the Dodger in last year’s shortened season, Wood tossed two perfect innings of relief in Game 6 of the Fall Classic, crucially keeping the Tampa Bay Rays’ early lead to only one run on a night the Dodgers would stage a sixth-inning comeback and snap a 32-year title drought.
“I don’t think we win the World Series last year without him,” Roberts said.
That game was also Wood’s last as a Dodger. A free agent once again last offseason, the veteran’s internal desire was clear. He believed he could still be an impact starting pitcher, and while he would have been open to staying with the Dodgers, the Giants offered him a better opportunity to pitch in the rotation — to prove his best days still hadn’t passed.
“I really take a lot of pride in what we accomplished my five years in L.A. and finally getting over that ultimate hurdle last year and being able to win a World Series,” Wood said, adding: “I could have maybe came back here and battled it out. But they got a lot of good arms, a lot of good young arms that are the future of the Dodgers.”
In San Francisco, Wood became an integral part of the Giants’ 107-win emergence, going 10-4 with a 3.83 ERA and 152 strikeouts over 26 starts.
He found new life on a sinker that averaged almost 92 mph and contributed to his 50.8% ground ball rate, swing-and-miss success with a funky slider that helped him post a career-best 26% strikeout rate and good health for most of the season, including returning from a short IL stint in early September to finish the regular season with back-to-back strong outings.
“He always wants the ball. He wants to stay in the game as long as possible. He always feels like he’s the best option to get the next three hitters out. And you can’t help but respect that level of competitiveness.”
Giants manager Gabe Kapler on pitcher Alex Wood
“I feel like I was in a really good place all year,” he said.
And now, it will all culminate in a showdown back at Chavez Ravine, where Wood has surrendered only one earned run in 10 career postseason innings.
Wood remains close with many of his old Dodger teammates — he said he even talked with one this week, “but it was just purely fantasy football,” he said and laughed — and reminisced on Sunday about all the lessons he learned in that clubhouse, even as recently as last year when he was locker-mates with David Price and Clayton Kershaw.
But he said the strangeness of pitching against them has worn off by now, too, after facing the team three times this regular season (he had a 4.76 ERA in those games, but did strike out 22 batters in 17 innings).
Instead, he’s entering Game 3 focused on himself, his new team and channeling the fiery self-confidence almost everyone on both sides has come to know so well.
“When I read Dave’s quotes,” Giants manager Gabe Kapler said a few hours after Roberts talked on Sunday, “I realized, like, you really get to know that as a manager. He always wants the ball. He wants to stay in the game as long as possible. He always feels like he’s the best option to get the next three hitters out. And you can’t help but respect that level of competitiveness.”