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The Prodigal, The Prior And The Precipitation

Greg Maddux warms up before Thursday's game. Photo by Al

PEORIA, Arizona -- The last time Mark Prior and Greg Maddux opposed each other on a baseball field, the stakes were quite a bit higher than they were Thursday afternoon -- that was Game Three of the 2003 NLDS against the Braves at Wrigley Field on October 3, 2003. Prior was masterful, throwing a two-hit complete game (oddly, one of the hits was registered by Marcus Giles, who faced Prior today, and the other was by Prior's now-teammate Mark DeRosa).

Or maybe that's wrong -- maybe the stakes were higher today, as the future of Prior's career, seemingly so bright on that October evening, may stand in the balance.

I've returned from the Cubs' rain-shortened, 5-inning, 1-0 loss to the Padres to tell you that, as opposed to what appeared last Friday to be Prior fading away into an Arizona sunset, he may have earned himself a reprieve.

The first inning looked like Prior from Fitch Park -- up in the zone, arm angle dropping, getting hit hard; even the first two hitters, who made outs, made solid contact. Then the next four hitters all singled, and Prior might have been tagged for more than one run, had it not been for a nice throw from Matt Murton to get Josh Bard trying to score the second run of the inning. In that first inning, Prior had no called strikes nor any pitches on which Padres swung and missed.

But then -- almost miraculously -- he settled down. He'd have had a 1-2-3 inning in the second if Aramis Ramirez hadn't foolishly thrown away a relatively easy grounder by Maddux. Prior didn't let it bother him -- he then retired Marcus Giles on a comebacker. And had a couple of swings and misses, including a swinging strikeout of Kevin Kouzmanoff.

He walked two in the third inning, but finished it off with another swinging strikeout, and you could see his body language changing with nearly every batter. There's no swagger there yet -- but there seemed to be confidence building.

His fourth inning was even better -- more swings and misses, and finishing, somehow appropriately, with a called-K on Maddux.

For good measure, he hit a solid line-drive single to left field in his only at-bat in the third inning.

Is Mark Prior "back"? Heavens, no. It's one game, four innings, in spring training, though against a good team that was starting what is probably going to be its Opening Day lineup (although how the Padres can hit Josh Bard cleanup on an everyday basis is beyond me). Prior's stuff was better. His command was better. Is he ready for a major league mound? No, he's not. Is he ready for another spring training start? I would suspect so; next Tuesday against the Royals would make sense to me.

I sat again with BCB readers bleacher and the SD Smooth Jazz Man; we watched the dark black clouds looming over the stands from the right field lawn, seemingly surrounding the park until they finally opened up in the bottom of the fifth inning, when Rich Hill had come on to throw in relief of Prior; Hill's outing was pretty useless for any analysis, since he faced only four batters, striking two of them out as a fairly hard rain fell -- I confess, I didn't see the last one, as I was racing very, very quickly from the shelter of a tree on the lawn to my car. I knew once it started raining, they wouldn't start up again. And it rained very, very hard -- the sort I'd call "forgetfulness rain". You know, the kind where people here in the Valley forget how to drive when the roads are wet. Traffic slowed to a standstill at a time and place in Scottsdale where you almost never see any backups. Before the rain came, I had one of the better food offerings in the Cactus League -- a grilled double cheeseburger for $6.

So what now? Honestly, Wade Miller, supposedly with the leg up on the fifth starter slot, hasn't had appearances that were that much better than the way Prior threw today. Since the Cubs are paying Prior $3.575 million this year, I'd guess that if he can throw the way he did today in the two more starts they're likely to give him before the regular season starts, then he'll be the one occupying that fifth-starter role -- taking the mound in Milwaukee on Saturday, April 7. If that's the case, and he does start Tuesday against the Royals, they might have to leave him behind in Arizona to throw one more time, because on a four-day rest, his next turn would come up Sunday, April 1, when there is no game; I'd guess they'd find some minor leaguers to face him on Monday, April 2, in Mesa.

Before you accuse me of drinking the Kool-Aid on Prior -- I'm still playing "wait-and-see" here. One decent (and that's all it was, "decent") outing does not revive a career.

But it is a start. If -- and that's still a BIG "if" -- Mark Prior can indeed revive his career, good things can happen for the 2007 Cubs.

Other than that, there's not much to report today; the Cubs had only three hits, a single by Ryan Theriot (whose name the Peoria PA announcer mispronounced three different ways), a Derrek Lee double, and Prior's hit. It's the easiest spring training scorecard I think I've ever filled out -- only two substitutions, Buck Coats pinch-hitting for Prior (he grounded to first) and Hill coming in to pitch. In the fifth inning, incidentally, Matt Murton led off with a sharp grounder up the middle, which Maddux speared with the reflexes of someone twenty years younger.

He is still amazing. He looks odd in the blue-and-sand uniform (he wears #30, because San Diego's #31 is retired for Dave Winfield). Wish he could have stayed.