Photo courtesy of Jon SooHoo/Los Angeles Dodgers

Mound of Resolve

Alex Wood stars in World Series, Ardrey Kell to retire his number

By Susan Shackelford

In 2018, Ardrey Kell High School will retire the number of Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Alex Wood, who last fall reached baseball’s pinnacle, the World Series. The Charlotte native made not only his school but his hometown and family proud. “I guess ‘surreal’ is the word that comes up,” says his father, Richard Wood. “It’s hard to fathom he’s out there at this level, but we have no choice but to believe it now.”

The Wood family saw his lofty status in stark relief when Alex made a stellar debut in the World Series in Game 4. It fit with the inspirational nature of the day.

Thirty years earlier, Alex’s parents, Richard and Carol, had become engaged on that date, Oct. 28. It was also the birthday of Wood’s fiancée (now wife), Suzanna, who turned 29. It was also the eighth anniversary of a scooter accident that paralyzed Wood’s close friend and former University of Georgia teammate, Chance Veazey. Wood and Dodger teammate Kyle Farmer, also a former Georgia player, both have “Second Chance” tattoos in honor of Veazey.

“It had God’s hand all over it … and we were all there,” Richard says of Game 4 at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

Setting a Dodger Record

Wood, an imposing left-hander at 6 feet 4 inches tall, didn’t relinquish a hit to the Astros for 5 1/3 innings — the longest hitless streak ever pitched by a Dodger in postseason play. That says a lot given the Dodgers’ storied history and franchise longevity (134 years in 2018).

In Game 7, to decide the champion, Wood came in as a reliever and largely shut down the Astros in the last two innings as the Dodgers tried to rally for the win. Though they fell short in a 5-1 loss, Wood did his part — giving up no hits, no walks and striking out three.

“It stunk how it ended; you work your whole life for this and we couldn’t finish it, but it was really incredible, so surreal,” says Wood, 27. “We had the best two teams in baseball and played some of the best games ever in the World Series. To be a part of that is truly a lot of fun.”

A hatless Wood and his Ardrey Kell teammates were jubilant when the baseball team won the 4A state title in 2009. Photo courtesy of Carol Wood
In Game 4 of the World Series, Wood posted the longest hitless streak ever pitched by a Dodger in postseason play. Photo courtesy of Jon SooHoo/Los Angeles Dodgers

Ardrey Kell baseball coach Hal Bagwell told Wood before the series about retiring his No. 24 high-school number (he’s No. 57 with the Dodgers). The school plans to honor him at a basketball game in December. “He was speechless,” Bagwell recalls.

That’s because Wood gained so much as a player from his time at Ardrey Kell. In the first class to graduate from the Ballantyne school, he arrived there as a junior after spending his first two years at Providence High.

“To this day, I can’t put into words how thankful I am to Coach (Danny) Hignite at Providence and Coach Bagwell at Ardrey Kell,” Wood says. “They are two of the best coaches I’ve ever had. They run their practices like a college program … It helps your baseball IQ.”

Both Ardrey Kell and Providence are known for their baseball teams, and Wood helped put Ardrey Kell’s on the map. The Knights reached the 4A state championship series both his years at the school, winning the title in 2009, his senior season.

Key Hits in State Final

Surprisingly, Wood didn’t even throw a pitch when the Knights beat Raleigh’s Sanderson High 2-0 for the state title in the best-of-three series. After tearing an elbow ligament in the regional final, Wood excelled in a role unusual for a pitcher — designated hitter.

A strong batter for the Knights all season, Wood had “several key hits” in the state series, Bagwell says. That, coupled with his 10-2 pitching record and 0.87 ERA, led him to being named the sport’s state 4A player of the year.

“He willed our team to so many wins,” Bagwell recalls. “He had unbelievable ‘teachability,’ poise beyond his years and competitiveness off the charts. He refused to give in.”

Such determination has helped him in many ways, from persevering through the elbow injury and other physical issues to handling career challenges. The trials have tested a focus and drive Wood has had since he began T-ball at age 5, progressed to youth leagues at the Matthews Athletic & Recreation Association and played AAU and travel ball with the South Panthers through high school.

Wood began T-ball at age 5 and progressed to youth leagues at the Matthews Athletic & Recreation Association. Photo courtesy of the Wood family
Left: A neighbor helped Carol Wood edit this image to show her son's high-school pitching form. Right: When Wood pitched at the University of Georgia, he was honored with his own bobblehead.

“He’s one of the toughest human beings I know,” says dad Richard. “He’s always had tunnel vision, always had blinders on, because from an early age baseball was all he wanted to do. He had the ability from a young age to not let anything from the outside get in his way.”

His sister, Stephanie, two years younger and also a star athlete at Ardrey Kell, rolled up honors in softball, including conference player of the year and all-state. But she elected not to go further. “Once you get to college, they own you from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.,” their dad explains. “If you don’t love it, you’re not going to make it. Alex loved it; Stephanie was in ‘like.’”

Tommy John Surgery — named for another well-known left-handed Dodger pitcher — was the solution to Wood’s elbow problem. Tommy John had the surgery successfully in 1974 when it was new. Today the procedure is so routine Wood felt confident he’d come back fine; however, keeping his college baseball scholarship was on the line. “It’s a business,” his dad says. “I truly felt at any time they (University of Georgia coaches) could have said, ‘Why don’t you go to a junior college?’ Until we drove on that campus, it was hard to know he’d be there.”

In 2017, Wood posted a 10-0 start with a 1.67 ERA and made the all-star team. Photo courtesy of Jon SooHoo/Los Angeles Dodgers

‘First Adult Moment’

Wood redshirted his freshman year and rehabbed his elbow for 14 months. He then had a good season with the Bulldogs and was invited to the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League, a summer competition that attracts pro scouts. Reluctantly, Wood said “no.”

“My arm was pretty gassed,” he remembers. Having thrown more than 100 innings during the season, he stayed in Athens to rest his arm and refine his mechanics. “It was my first adult moment,” he says, “and I look back and wonder if I had not done that, who knows what would have happened. It was the most pivotal decision I’ve made in my life.”

His next season at Georgia, his junior year, he pitched so well (7-3, 2.73 ERA) that the Atlanta Braves drafted him in the second round in 2012. He began in the club’s minor league system and reached the major-league level in 2013. He performed well with the Braves, especially in 2015, but was traded to the Dodgers during the season.

“It was a punch in the gut,” Wood recalls. “I was a little bit blindsided … but I was fortunate to go to a contender, and there are great guys out there.”

Alex celebrated with his father, Richard, mother Carol and sister Stephanie when the Dodgers won their division in 2016. Photo courtesy of Carol Wood
Alex and Suzanna honeymooned on St. Lucia after getting married late last year. Photo courtesy of Alex Wood

But in 2016, he had a setback. He missed most of the season (98 games) with a left elbow impingement that required arthroscopic surgery on July 20. He worked his way through rehab and was disappointed not to make the starting rotation to begin the 2017 season. He nonetheless performed spectacularly when inserted early on for injured ace Clayton Kershaw. “Alex is a fighter,” Bagwell says.

Wood posted a 10-0 start, 1.67 ERA and made the all-star team. He finished the regular season 16-3 with a 2.72 ERA, bothered by a joint strain in his chest that sent him to the Disabled List for two weeks in June and in August. But he made the playoff roster, kept focused despite a bad game in the National League Championship Series and went on to star in the World Series.

In mid-January, he agreed to a $6 million contract with the Dodgers for 2018, more than double his 2017 salary of $2.8 million. Barring injury, Wood is expected to be in the starting rotation when the season begins in late March.

Getting Married

Last November three and a half weeks after the World Series, he and Suzanna “Suz” Villareal were married in a black-tie ceremony at the St. Regis hotel in Atlanta’s Buckhead area. They met while students at Georgia, when she was working for a friend of his who owned a bar in Athens.

She and Wood reconnected a few years ago when they were both living in Atlanta, and where today she is a Realtor® with a luxury home firm. More than 200 attended their wedding on Nov. 25, and the couple honeymooned on St. Lucia. “It was stunning,” Alex says of the Caribbean island.

That’s also how many would describe his World Series performance.