Wood makes Cubs whole again

CHICAGO -- The last time the Cubs could count on both Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, the ivy at Wrigley Field was red.

That it's still in its brightest green might be the best reason for the Cubs to celebrate Wood's return, which is scheduled for Sunday. Barring another injury, they could have their proposed starting rotation for the entire second half of the season.

That's not the way manager Dusty Baker drew it up, but it could give them a chance to reel in the St. Louis Cardinals and see if the ivy is again red this October. They trail the Cardinals by six games entering this weekend's series at Busch Stadium.

"We haven't hit our stride yet," Baker said earlier this week. "We haven't played our best baseball. I think that's still to come. But I'll take where we are at the midway part of the season. We've battled and battled and battled the whole way."

Since the time Prior reported a sore Achilles tendon in Arizona, the Cubs have been forced to improvise. They had their three least dispensable players, Sammy Sosa, Prior and Wood, on the disabled list at some point. They are still without shortstop Alex Gonzalez and two of their four most important relievers, Joe Borowski and Mike Remlinger.

Given all that, it is a little victory that they are eight games over .500 and on pace to win 89 games. But it could take at least 95 to overhaul the Cardinals, who have been among the National League's best surprises.

To get to 95 wins, the Cubs will have to go 49-29 the rest of the way. That's a .628 winning percentage, which is better than any team in the majors has had in the first half.

Barring a Cardinals collapse, the Cubs have one thing to hope for -- that Wood and Prior will carry them like they did a year ago.

The Cubs were 16-8 behind Wood and Prior in the second half last year, with the 10-1 record behind Prior allowing them to win a three-team race with Houston and St. Louis.

With Wood back, this year's rotation is a little deeper. Greg Maddux replaces Shawn Estes as the fifth starter, working alongside Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement.

"It'll be nice to have us all in the spots we're supposed to be in, all pitching in a row," Clement told the Chicago Tribune. "But you have to give much respect to what Glendon (Rusch) and Sergio (Mitre) did. They threw the ball pretty darn well subbing for Mark and Woody."

Rusch, who moves to the bullpen, worked eight shutout innings against the White Sox last Sunday. He and Mitre combined to go 5-5 with a 4.75 ERA in 19 starts filling in for Wood and Prior.

Those are good numbers. But they don't come close to the expectations that are placed on Wood and Prior.

Wood, out since May 11 with biceps tendinitis, did nothing to diminish those expectations with his work Tuesday night for Triple-A Iowa. In his only rehab start, he worked five scoreless innings, walking one and striking out four.

His fastball reached the mid-90s and his changeup was down in the 70s. Best of all, according to Baker, was that he threw strikes -- 43 out of 59 pitches.

"The good part is not only health-wise, but that he threw strikes," Baker said. "This is what's probably the toughest thing to do when you come back from not pitching a while -- throwing strikes."

Wood says he's good to go.

"Everything feels good," he told the Tribune's John Mullin after the outing in Des Moines. "I thought I was smooth in my delivery and as long as I don't get ahead of myself and try to do too much, everything should be fine."

Unlike Prior, who missed the first two months of the season with Achilles and elbow concerns, Wood won't be starting without a base. He had gone 3-3 with a 2.82 ERA in seven starts before walking off the mound at Dodger Stadium on May 11.

But Prior is finding it tough to get right back in the saddle. He's 2-2 with a 4.00 ERA in seven starts. He has worked more than six innings only once because of strict pitch counts, which have kept him below 100 pitches in each start.

"He's very close," Baker said of Prior. "But he's operating at a two and a half month deficit, and that's a long deficit. These hitters are advanced at this point in time. They have seen curveballs. Their timing is there. So he's coming into a situation where the hitter is at 250 to 300 at-bats. That's a pretty big jump. It'll turn soon enough when the hitters get a little more tired and Mark will get stronger."

Prior seemed disgusted with himself when he allowed four runs in only four innings at Milwaukee on Tuesday. The Brewers forced him to throw 92 pitches to get 12 outs. "The bottom line is I just need to pitch better," Prior said.

Wood can expect hitters to try to take him deep into counts when he returns. Baker figures to monitor his pitch count closely, at least for a month or two.

How patient Baker can be could be determined by this weekend's series. It will determine whether the Cubs head into the second half trailing by as few as three games or as many as nine.

That difference is probably even bigger than the impact the Cubs can expect from Wood.

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