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Today in Cubs history: Mark Prior is hit by a line drive and his career path is altered

This was a key moment in Cubs history in the mid-2000s.

Mark Prior on the ground after being hit by Brad Hawpe’s line drive
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

You probably remember this day; I remember it well and not only did it alter Mark Prior’s career path, it likely changed the future of the Chicago Cubs.

Prior had suffered a previous serious injury in 2003 when he and Marcus Giles of the Braves had collided on the basepaths. That collision is shown briefly in this clip:

Prior missed almost four weeks after that, but after that came back and was dominant in 2003. From his return August 5, 2003 through season’s end: 11 starts, 1.52 ERA, 1.004 WHIP, 16 walks and 95 strikeouts in 82⅔ innings, and in that year’s postseason: 2.31 ERA, 1.071 WHIP. (I won’t mention the result of that postseason, but it wasn’t Prior’s fault.)

In 2004, Prior missed time with an Achilles issue and what was described as “elbow soreness.” His 2005 season, though, started well. Through 10 starts, he posted a 2.66 ERA and 0.948 WHIP and appeared back to close to his 2003 level.

In that 10th start, though, against the Rockies at Wrigley Field, this happened:

I was at that game. When I saw that happen, I immediately thought, “That’s season-ending.” I feared it might even be career-ending. Brad Hawpe’s line drive banged right off Prior’s right elbow; oddly, it bounced far enough in the air that Aramis Ramirez caught it and Hawpe was out.

Instead of taking more time for Prior to heal from that injury, the 2005 Cubs were desperate to stay in contention. They had already fallen 8½ games out of first place and though they won this game 10-3 (and that began a seven-game winning streak), they could not make up much ground on the first-place Cardinals.

And so it was that Prior returned to the mound only four weeks after this injury, and threw six one-hit innings against the White Sox June 26.

After that, though? The rest of Prior’s season was not so good. He made 17 starts from July 1 to season’s end and posted a 4.31 ERA and 1.378 WHIP and the Cubs finished a distant fourth, 21 games out of first place.

Prior started 2006 on the disabled list with shoulder issues, and didn’t pitch for the MLB Cubs until June, when his first start came June 18 against the Tigers, who smashed four home runs off him in less than four innings. The rest of his 2006 season was pretty bad and he was shut down after a mediocre start against the Brewers August 10.

The following spring he had exploratory shoulder surgery, which found a torn rotator cuff. While Prior tried several comebacks in the Rangers, Yankees, Red Sox and Reds organization — including pitching pretty well at Triple-A Pawtucket in the Red Sox system in 2012 — he never pitched in the majors again.

I am convinced that coming back too soon from that elbow injury in 2005 likely forced Prior to subtly alter his motion, which likely caused the shoulder problems. Yes, it is possible that the collision with Giles also contributed to that. As you can see in that video, Prior landed on his right shoulder in that collision. But he threw well for more than a year after returning from that injury, and only after the Hawpe line drive did his performance seriously decline. If he had stayed out the rest of 2005, perhaps had surgery then, maybe he comes back in 2006 or 2007 and has himself a career.

Obviously we’ll never know. Prior has landed on his feet and still has a baseball career, serving as the Dodgers’ pitching coach since 2020.

The elbow injury from that line drive that altered Prior’s career path happened 17 years ago today, Friday, May 27, 2005.