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Prior Returns


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Last Friday began as an idyllic day at Wrigley Field. The wind wafted off the lake straight in from center field, putting a chill in the shadowy corners of the Friendly Confines, but otherwise it seemed the sort of afternoon that baseball was invented for. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, just the feathery wisps of jet contrails. The sun beamed down on the Cubs as they took batting practice, and as the gates opened and the fans began to fill the stands, organist Gary Pressy announced his presence with the fitting "On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)."

Out in the right-field bleachers, a boy with a glove leaned over the wall until a home run headed straight for him; he reached out only to watch the ball bounce off the glove and back onto the field. None other than Greg Maddux retrieved the ball, held it, considered it as the bleacher fans pleaded with him to return it to the boy. Then he did exactly that, only to immediately ask for it back with a gesture of his glove. So Maddux and the boy enjoyed a brief game of catch before another batted ball plopped nearby and, with one last toss to the boy, Maddux returned to shagging flies with the other pitchers in the outfield.

As if to emphasize Wrigley's unique place in the sport, every other contest listed on the center-field scoreboard was a "Nite Game." Only in Chicago was baseball to be played the way it was meant to be played, under the sun on a beautiful afternoon.

Then Mark Prior emerged from the Cubs dugout, and in an instant the day's bucolic atmosphere changed. Maybe that's not quite right: There was an added intensity, an almost tangible expectation one could sense from the moment one entered the stadium--from the moment one neared the stadium. The crowds were gathering to greet Prior's first start of the year. It was two months into the season, and Sammy Sosa and Kerry Wood had since joined him on the disabled list. Prior was noticeably absent during batting practice, not even taking his turn for a few bunts in the cage. No doubt he was preparing himself mentally and physically for his official comeback from an Achilles tendon problem that led to a tender elbow during spring training, but he was also averting reporters' questions about an ill-advised autograph session--scheduled months in advance--that had gone awry the previous night in Naperville.

In any case, as Prior walked down the left-field line to the bullpen, followed by a rising wave of applause and shouts all down the grandstand, he showed no sign that anything was bothering him. Cap pulled, as usual, menacingly low on his forehead, with only a rubber sleeve on his right elbow to suggest anything remotely amiss, he gave every indication that it was business as usual.

It is Prior--not Sosa, not Wood, not Dusty Baker, signed before last season, not even Maddux, brought back this spring--who epitomizes the altered state of the Cubs' fortunes. In his look, with his prodigious calves and Popeye forearms, and in his approach to the game, with his textbook mechanics and give-nothing demeanor on the mound, Prior suggests that nothing short of excellence will do, and that attitude has carried over to the entire team and to its fans. It's why Corey Patterson, a photogenic and talented but flawed young player in the classic Cubbie mold, has been booed at times this season, along with erratic closer Joe Borowski. Lovable losers are no longer so lovable, thanks to the example set by Prior.

But no matter how high expectations are for the Cubs this season, no one was prepared for the performance Prior was about to deliver. Cheered by the fans in the left-field bleachers, he started playing catch in the outfield, then stretched the distance out to long toss. He came in, took the bullpen mound, and began his usual towel-snapping exercise--pitching with only the edge of a towel in his right hand--to get the feel for his proper arm motion. Then, removing the rubber sleeve, he began to warm up in earnest, throwing easily, letting the fastballs fly from his fingertips and snapping off a few breaking balls. Cheered when his name was announced in the lineup, he finished warming up before the national anthem and walked back down to the dugout to more applause and shouts of "Go get 'em, Mark!" that peaked as he took the mound and the Cubs took the field. Then he retired the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates on six pitches, starting with Jason Kendall, who grounded the first pitch, a slider, to third. It was not only as if he'd never been away--he was better than ever. Fans gave him a standing ovation as he came off the field. He responded with no response, as if he expected nothing less.

Yet not even he could have expected what he did. Striking out two apiece in the second and third and another in the fourth, he took a perfect game into the fifth--a perfect game, in his first appearance since the infamous Bartman game in the championship series. With one out, Rob Mackowiak--an Oak Lawn native and frequent Cubs nemesis who'd driven in 11 runs in four games against them the previous weekend as the Pirates won three of four in Pittsburgh--slapped a single to center. He stole second, and one out later it appeared Tike Redman's single to left would snap the scoreless tie. But Moises Alou charged the ball, came up throwing, and nailed Mackowiak at the plate. It was beautiful baseball on a beautiful day, and for the short term the baseball got even better. The Cubs' Michael Barrett doubled in the bottom half of the inning, and with two out Todd Walker crushed the ball to deep center. But Redman ran it down and made a diving catch with his back to the infield to end the inning. In the sixth, Prior toyed with the bottom of the Pittsburgh order like a cat with a mouse, throwing a low curve and a slider for strikes before fanning Jose Castillo on a high inside fastball, then dropping a curve on pitcher Josh Fogg for a called third strike. Kendall reached base on a grounder booted by new shortstop Rey Ordonez, but Prior got Jack Wilson swinging on another fastball. After six innings and 85 pitches, having allowed two hits and no walks while posting eight strikeouts, his comeback was complete for the day.

The Cubs had a chance to set Prior up for the win in the bottom half of the inning. Patterson reached and stole second, then boneheadedly got hung up between second and third on an Alou grounder back to Fogg. But he scampered back to second on pure speed ahead of Mackowiak's groping, stumbling tag. With two on and one out, Fogg plunked Aramis Ramirez to load the bases. But Todd Hollandsworth fanned on a pitch in the dirt, and Barrett--who'd been six for six lifetime against Fogg, including a pair of doubles earlier in the game--saw his streak end at the wrong time with an inning-ending pop to right.

Though Prior had no decision to show for his splendid comeback, the Cubs could have salvaged a win. They finally struck with two-out thunder in the eighth, as Alou doubled to left and, after an intentional walk to Ramirez, came home on a single up the middle by Hollandsworth. But Borowski came on in the ninth and he had nothing. Kendall smashed one into the left-center gap only to see Alou make a terrific diving stab, but that was as good as it would get for Borowski and the Cubs on this day. Jack Wilson yanked a curve down the left-field line for a double, and--after Daryle Ward popped out to bring the end of the game tantalizingly close--Craig Wilson mashed a liner to left. Alou tried to make another deadeye throw to the plate, but this one was up the first-base line and Jack Wilson scored, with Craig Wilson taking second. Borowski was yanked--more boos from the newly intolerant fans--and would be placed on the disabled list with a gimpy shoulder before the weekend was out. Mike Remlinger came on and gave up a single to pinch hitter Chris Stynes that scored Craig Wilson; it was the winning run, for the Cubs went tamely in the bottom of the ninth. Prior's incredible return was for naught.

This was the middle of the longest home stand of the season for the Cubs--ten games in 11 days against Central Division rivals the Houston Astros, the Pirates, and the Saint Louis Cardinals. The stand had begun with a similar motif of excellence followed by excruciating loss, albeit on a larger scale. Maddux pitched the Memorial Day opener against Houston's flame-throwing young ace, Roy Oswalt. Compared with Oswalt--with his pointed-toe delivery, an extra little kick as his arm lashed up behind him, and a fastball peaking at 97 miles an hour--Maddux seemed to be throwing underhand. But he delivered a vintage performance, all careful deception, while Oswalt gave up a run in the second. (Hollandsworth doubled and continued to third thanks to an error on the play at second, and then scored on a single by Ramon Martinez.) Then Oswalt settled down. But with two out in the fifth he made the mistake of throwing a first-pitch fastball to Patterson, who lined it into right. Alou came up next and, I thought, must have seen Patterson's hit and guessed Oswalt wouldn't make the same mistake twice. Sure enough, he threw an off-speed pitch, a slider, and Alou calmly dropped his bat and lined it into the left-field seats for a two-run homer. Afterward, Alou admitted appearances were deceiving. "I never look off-speed," he said. "I kind of hit it with one hand and got good wood on it."

Whatever--it was all the Cubs would need, though Maddux, pitching with the lead and throwing strikes, did give up a solo homer to Lance Berkman in the sixth. He waved his glove at it as it soared overhead, as if he were trying to snatch it back. With Kyle Farnsworth, LaTroy Hawkins, and, yes, Borowski coming on to preserve the lead, the Cubs won 3-1. Maddux was typically stoic about winning his 293rd game, a key one for the Cubs. "They're all big," he said simply, making me realize he takes as much pride in making reporters swing and miss as he does batters.

Yet the Cubs followed that victory with two painful losses to the Astros, the second in a duel between Matt Clement and Roger Clemens that gave the Cubs their seventh loss in nine games and dropped them to fourth place, four and a half games out of first. That's why the blown game in Prior's first start seemed so costly. The Cubs, however, went in the other direction this time, getting great pitching performances from Carlos Zambrano and Maddux, who again outdueled a young fireballer, Ryan Vogelsong, to win 4-1 in a Sunday game finished by Remlinger, Farnsworth, and Hawkins.

The victory improved the Cubs to 29-26, and though they were still four and a half out they'd strung together three straight great pitching outings. With the season one-third gone but Wood and Sosa due back before the end of the month, the pieces looked to be falling into place. That can't happen soon enough. Not one of the almost 40,000 fans filling Wrigley Field on a daily basis seemed eager to return to the days when winning or losing didn't matter, when the only pressing concern was to enjoy a beautiful day at the ballpark.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steve Green.

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