Cubs believe future will be Prior history

CHICAGO -- On a fine spring night, it is possible to imagine the perfect summer at Wrigley Field. Especially when Mark Prior is on the mound for the Cubs.

That was the case Monday.

Prior was working for the first time since his four-hit shutout of Montreal . Only a week after snow had postponed the home opener, the temperature had climbed above 80.

Tues., April 15

There's no reason the Cubs' Mark Prior can't win win multiple Cy Young Awards before his career is done. Of course, that career has just begun. Prior is in his second year in the majors -- and first full year -- after being chosen by the Cubs with the second overall pick in the 2001 draft. Certainly, Prior has better stuff and a better arm than other pitchers who have won a Cy Young.

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A game that had not looked like a sellout in mid-afternoon became one, with a huge walkup crowd filling the beautiful old ballpark. Waveland Avenue filled with Good-Time Charlies hoping Sammy Sosa would send them home with a souvenir.

All seemed right in the Wrigleyville when Prior set the Cincinnati Reds down in order in the first inning. But an unexpected thing happened in the second -- Prior walked Adam Dunn.

We say unexpected because Prior doesn't get out of whack very often. He's Greg Maddux with better stuff, actually.

Prior had 12 strikeouts without a walk in his shutout of Montreal -- a 3-0 victory that was a post-modern classic, in which he and Javier Vazquez combined for 26 strikeouts and no walks -- but wasn't as sharp Monday. After walking Dunn, he gave up a Jason LaRue chopper that escaped the leaping backhand try of third baseman Mark Bellhorn, going down the line for a double. Dunn scored when Prior uncorked a 94-mph fastball past catcher Damian Miller, and LaRue came home on a Reggie Taylor squeeze bunt.

LaRue's cheap double was the only hit Prior allowed through four innings but he would give up two runs in the fifth inning -- in part because of his throwing error on a bunt -- and another in the sixth.

Prior called it one of those games when anything that could go wrong, did. He was correct.

The tone had been set for what would become an 11-3 loss to the Reds, dropping Prior to 2-1 for the season and 8-7 for his short career.

Given the 3.07 ERA he's hung up thus far, he deserves a better won-loss record. But, hey, these are the Cubs, after all.

Even Dusty Baker sounded down after Monday night's loss.

"Quite honestly, we kind of looked like the Cubs of last year,'' Baker said. "Hopefully that doesn't come back often.''

Baker has already grown tired of the reminders about the Cubs' chronic ineptness. But the reminders are inescapable for his players, who perform under one of the saddest billboards in sports.

At the Lakeview Baseball Club, beyond the right-field bleachers, they note each also-ran season on a blue sign in a short-hand that is known to just about everyone in the bleachers. It reads "AC 145895.''

The first two digits are the years since the Cubs' last division title. The next two are the years since the last National League pennant. The last two are the years since the last winning World Series.

Baker is the best hope to prevent that running total from climbing to seven digits. It is Prior and the the Cubs' stable of powerful right-handers -- including Kerry Wood, Matt Clement, Carlos Zambrano, Juan Cruz and Kyle Farnsworth, with two others on their way in Francis Beltran and Angel Guzman -- that gives Baker reason to believe he can succeed where other good men have failed.

"When I looked at the Cubs, the one thing I liked the best was the pitching,'' Baker said. "This team has pitchers who make you take notice when you are sitting in the other dugout.''

While Baker would love to win instantly in a division -- or a league, for that matter -- where every team has its flaws, his mandate is to build a team capable of winning 90 games every year, as he did in San Francisco.

It's unrealistic to expect that to happen overnight, given the abject disappointment of a 95-loss season in 2002. This is a team with a poorly constructed lineup counting on way too many unproven prospects and castoffs to contend. Sosa is one of four regulars coming off a 136-strikeout season. Fielding is not a strong suit, either, as Monday's three-error performance pointed out.

But it's hard for team president Andy MacPhail and general manager Jim Hendry to temper expectations when they are in their ninth season working for Tribune Co. So they cross their fingers and hope for more of the good fortune they had in 1998, when a team that had lost 94 games the year before caught fire and earned a wild-card spot.

MacPhail and Hendry must love the way Prior has followed Wood to ignite the imagination of fans who seemed so sour last September, when Bruce Kimm was playing out the string after replacing Don Baylor at midseason.

How good is Prior? He's good enough that Hall of Famer Tom Seaver sent word to Prior that he'd like to meet him during the season-opening series at Shea Stadium, when Prior allowed only one run in six innings against the Mets.

Prior and Seaver are linked both by their talents and their backgrounds, as both attended USC.

Prior was called the best college pitcher ever when he went 15-1 with 202 strikeouts and only 18 walks in 139 innings for the Trojans in 2001. The Cubs were thrilled when Minnesota selected local catcher Joe Mauer with the first pick of the draft, leaving Prior there for them.

It took a guaranteed $10.5 million to sign him. That looks like the best money the Cubs have spent since Bill Veeck bought seeds for the outfield ivy.

"The question with Prior isn't whether he's going to win a Cy Young,'' one scout said after watching him this spring. "It's how many Cy Youngs he's going to win.''

Prior, who didn't sign with the Yankees after they drafted him 43rd overall out of high school, has been groomed for success by his father along with pitching consultant Tom House, among others. He is a pitching version of Tiger Woods, having both physical and mental advantages.

He is blessed with Kevin Brown's arm, Jamie Moyer's intellect and Maddux's consistent delivery. He is able to repeat quality pitches time after time because of mechanics that many experts believe are the best they've ever seen in a 22-year-old.

Prior's results have been stunningly good. He pitched well enough in the spring of 2002 to make himself a candidate to begin his professional career in the big leagues. But wanting to be cautious, MacPhail and Hendry assigned him initially to Double-A West Tenn. He wound up making only nine starts between there and Triple-A Iowa.

To date, he's had only 22 outings as a pro. During that time he's compiled a 2.86 ERA over 188 2/3 innings, allowing 150 hits while striking out 251. That's 12 strikeouts for every nine innings.

"Prior is going to get a lot of strikeouts, no doubt about it,'' the scout said. "But the thing that really strikes you is that it never looks like he's trying to blow away hitters. His fastball is such easy heat and it makes his curveball untouchable. But, if you ask me, he pitches like a guy who is trying to get ground balls, not strikeouts. He's trying to minimize his pitches but his stuff is just so good that hitters aren't comfortable.''

Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild helped Prior's changeup become a strikeout pitch. He had thrown it in the high-80s while at USC but now can throw it in the low-80s without telegraphing it.

"He gave me one suggestion that triggered something in my mind,'' Prior said of Rothschild. "When I tried it, I felt better almost immediately. I found that release point I looked for two or three years.''

Prior won't turn 23 until September. He hopes the Cubs will be fighting for a playoff spot on his birthday.

It's unlikely -- but hardly impossible -- that will happen this year. But with the rest of the season to develop young talent and another winter to fine-tune the roster, it should happen by 2004.

Once the Cubs start to win, they might win for a while. Prior brings the type of consistency that strong teams have at the front of their rotation. That was the consolation fans could take with them when they hopped on the El after Monday night's loss.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.