The day Albert Pujols became the first Cardinal ever to have a three-homer game against the Cubs, Matt Morris gave up three more longballs in Wrigley Field, and is mounting a serious threat to Bert Blyleven's 18-year old single season record of 50 home runs allowed in a season, or at least Jose Lima's National League mark of 48 set just four years back.
But St. Louis' erstwhile ace isn't only concerned with the preponderance of power blasts he's providing, he's picking up the pace in his personal pitcher's hitting derby with his fellow Cardinals starters. Not only has the front five for St. louis missed only one turn all season, they're in the midst of a season-long pool to see who can put up the best hitting statistics in categories which include the nearly laughable (home runs), occasional (hits), essential (sacrifices), and under appreciated (advancing the runner).
Through the first half, former Brave Jason Marquis is making it a runaway in almost every category, with Morris and Chris Carpenter providing the only semblance of a challenge, preseason favorite Woody Williams inexplicably trailing and Jeff Suppan matching his unbeaten road record on the mound with a hitless ledger in the batter's box. As his teammates assure him, it's a "very hard zero," in baseball terms meaning no one else could hit the ball so well with nothing to show for it. Marquis can't think of anything magical he's doing with the bat in his hand to produce such an imposing lead on his peers, maybe just learning to relax. It certainly didn't hurt his momentum to go deep off reigning World Series MVP Josh Beckett during spring training this March. At the end of the year, Marquis, or the fellow starter who rallies and overtakes him, collects the top prize of the likely lucrative pooled entry fee. Although exact numbers weren't disclosed, there have been discussions that if Suppan should "accomplish" the unspeakable and remain hitless, he may "earn" a double entry fee refund.
Morris and Carpenter have other things in common besides being in the same rotation. Close friends who share a lot of off-field time double dating with their wives, they can share the appreciation of a companion who can eat what they do. Both pitchers' wives are vegans, strict vegetarians, which of course forms a bond for Heather Morris and Alyson Carpenter, but also for the players, who hang out by the barbecue with the meat products while their wives are in the kitchen cooking up tofu concoctions. Neither gender is turned off by the other's food preference, although the wives philosophically can't indulge in their husband's steaks and burgers, Morris and Carpenter tolerate an occasional visit to a vegetarian restaurant ... just not around the team.
Although the Cubs didn't play well coming out of the All-Star break, it wasn't for any lack of protein in their diet. On the last day of the break, hitting coach Gary Matthews and some close friends chartered a boat on Lake Michigan, and the Sarge came back with an impressive haul of eight fish, including salmon. Being a Chicago native, I still find it hard to believe there are salmon in Lake Michigan, but Matthews has the photographic and culinary evidence to prove it. Cubs chef Robert Chamberlain smoked some of the fish for a pregame spread on Thursday, then prepared the rest that Sarge had offered up to his team with lemon and white wine sauce for the postgame.
While Matthews' fishing prowess was well documented, what happened on a fishing expedition by the Reds' Adam Dunn and Barry Larkin in Mexico is subject to abject dispute. To hear Larkin tell the story, Dunn invited him out to share his fishing knowledge, but when he ventured to the front of the boat where Dunn had set up shop, without much success, Larkin was banished to the back of the vessel. In Larkin's eyes, Dunn was perturbed that the "rookie" angler had hooked a fish, and in "his" spot no less. From Dunn's perspective: Larkin came forward that day in Mexico, and cast his line over him, and hotly contested any suggestion his fishing pal made of impropriety. As an outside observer, it's hard to imagine Barry casting over the 6-foot-5 Dunn, but both told their versions with ernest passion. For his part, Larkin summed up Dunn as a "fisher-hater." Of course Larkin has long had a perception of his Texas teammate as a "hater." Growing up in Texas, as a fervent Houston Astros fan, Dunn hated the Reds, and none more so than Barry Larkin. Being the shrewd veteran that he is, Larkin was already aware of Dunn's preferences as he was making his way up through Cincinnati's system. As a peace offering, Larkin left three of his bats in Dunn's Louisville locker. To this day, Dunn says those bats carried him to the big leagues ... the problem is, they didn't make it there with him. One day he came back to his locker to discover someone had pilfered all three of his Barry Larkin Louisville Sluggers. Dunn never did discover who did the deed, although Gary Thorne made a suggestion on the air that none of us had considered ... maybe it was Larkin ... or one of his operatives.
A mystery of far greater significance, and with a far better trained and dogged investigative team looking to solve it, is the army of doctors, coaches, management, trainers, family, and lifelong friends trying to get to the bottom of Mark Prior's sore forearm. Is it a bruise? How'd it start? What's making it recur? Would he be better off shutting down completely or pitching through it? Is it bone, is it joint or ligament? Is it all in his head? Is the man with the monster calves soft? Is it just part of the Cubs curse? Will it disappear forever when he returns to the mound Sunday after skipping a start and leaving his last one after only three dozen pitches; or will he not even finish the first inning at Philadelphia's homer-happy Citizen's Bank Ballpark? There are answers to some of these, and may never be one to others. An affirmative one to whether Mark Prior can leave his indefinable forearm injury behind may well determine a bigger conundrum for Cubs fans ... can they reverse a lost first half and make the 2004 postseason?
Among the innumerable investigators on this case are no less than Cubs president Andy MacPhail, GM Jim Hendry, Dr. James Andrews of the Andrews Clinic, Dusty Baker and his pitching coach Larry Rothschild, Prior's father Jerry, the team's medical and training staff, and Mark's long-time coach and personal friend, Tom House.
The former Rangers' pitching coach runs the National Pitching Academy and has worked closely with Dr. Lewis Yocum and Dr. Andrews from the infancy of his revolutionary surgical practices on pitchers. House, who also teamed with Dusty Baker as an Atlanta Brave and was in the bullpen to catch Henry Aaron's 715th home run, first came across Prior as a 14 year old. The University High School product got knocked out in the second inning (ironically enough) of a game against a team from San Diego in which House's son was playing. That's when Prior's father Jerry decided it was time to seek professional help from House. Ten years later, they're still together. Last weekend, they supplemented their regular phone contact with an in-person visit, but unlike the Svenghali relationship suggested in some media circles, House happened to be in the area for a long-ago scheduled clinic in nearby Joliet. He's a welcome compliment to his old friend Baker, and former Padres' pitching pupil Rothschild, and as much as anything, a comfort to Prior in the most frustrating stretch yet to an injury-marred genesis of what many believe will be a profound career.
Theories are as numerous as the principals involved and none any more clear cut than Prior's forearm is reacting very much like a shin splint. True inflammation, but no bone, joint or ligament damage. And neither Baker, the doctors, trainers, coaches or House believes inactivity is a solution. In fact, the All-Star break and break in Prior's routine, may have contributed. The plan now is for "predictable results." He'll be monitored closely before, during and after his start(s), come as close to 105 pitches without going over, or, significantly under that total, and hold out hope he can do that about a dozen more times by October. Then, maybe, they can work on a postseason plan. The offseason is sure to include surgery to remove loose bodies in that bothersome Achilles' that flared up this spring. For now, Prior, and the conference of consultants, just want to get through Sunday.
Gary Miller is a reporter and play-by-play announcer for ESPN's major league baseball coverage.