Making their pitch
Cubs hurlers hold the key to the team's postseason chances
Posted: Tuesday August 26, 2003 12:56PM
By Tom Verducci, SI.com
The best thing that has happened to the Cubs this season was Mark Prior getting shut down for three weeks in July after after injuring his shoulder in a baserunning collision with Marcus Giles.
"Without [the time off]," Prior said, "I'm looking at 230, 235 innings. I could do it, but then you're talking about a big difference [from last year]. And a lot of times when you really get affected by [the increased workload] is the following year. I'm not ready to admit it was a blessing in disguise right now, but maybe at the end of the year I will."
Prior threw 167 2/3 total innings last year. Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild now expects the 22-year-old right-hander to finish this year with close to 190 innings pitched. That's a normal progression. It would've been risky for Prior to increase his total innings to 230. Now, because of the three-week hiatus, Chicago's ace is fresh and on track for a strong finish. He has been lights out since coming off the disabled list on Aug. 5.
"The touch on my breaking ball could be better and the location on my fastball isn't where I want it," he said, "but I feel great. No problem."
The Cubs will not win the NL Central unless Prior, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano pitch them there -- a huge load for a such a young trio with questions about its stamina for the stretch. Chicago's other two starters, Matt Clement and Shawn Estes, have been inconsistent. Its bullpen (14-15, 3.94 ERA) is not a standout one. And its offense is rather ordinary.
Give GM Jim Hendry credit for trying to upgrade the the Cubs' hitting after Corey Patterson was injured and Bobby Hill and Hee Seop Choi failed to make an impact -- as many young players before them have in the face of manager Dusty Baker's preference for veterans. But Hendry didn't land an impact hitter. Kenny Lofton and his .335 on-base percentage are pedestrian. Aramis Ramirez, who has been getting on base for the Cubs at only a .250 clip, is proving the Pirates' contention that he's not a $6 million-a-year player. And Randall Simon does give Chicago more balance with his left-handed stick, but he chases too many pitches and can give away runs on defense. The net result of the changes is that Chicago is better than it had been, but it's not ahead of the rest of the NL Central pack.
Unless Sammy Sosa has one of his patented monster months left in him -- and the late-summer heat at Wrigley appeared to be taking a toll on him last week, though August has been his best homer-hitting month over his career -- Prior, Wood and Zambrano will have to carry this team to October.
Prior is everything you want in an ace. His complete-game win Friday against Los Angeles proved how special he is, especially at such a young age. The USC product served as his own setup man and closer in a one-run game -- the kind of show you would've seen from Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax or Tom Seaver in another era. Though Baker had southpaw Mike Remlinger ready in the eighth, Prior stayed in to pitch to lefties Shawn Green and Jeromy Burnitz with the tying run at third --- and retired both of them, on a pop-up and strikeout, respectively. Prior then cruised through the ninth inning, finishing with 118 pitches. He threw harder in those final two innings -- topping out at 96 mph -- than he had all game. He took an extra beat in between pitches rather than rushing toward the finish.
His most impressive pitch may have been a 2-and-0 fastball to Adrian Beltre leading off the ninth. Beltre knew Prior would not walk the leadoff man in a one-run game, so the Dodgers third baseman could sit on a fastball. Beltre took a huge hack at the heater -- and Prior still threw the fastball past him at 93 mph.
"His velocity and location are so good," Rothschild said, "he's one of those guys where you can know what's coming and you still won't hit it."
Would Baker, as preventive medicine, have been better off over the longterm taking Prior out and letting his bullpen finish? It's not so clear cut. You had to see the game -- not the box score -- to understand that Prior found another gear late in the game. He was not laboring. His smooth mechanics were intact.
And as Baker explained about a previous start in which he let Prior stay on the mound during the late innings: "What he said didn't matter as much as how he looked. His stuff and his eyes looked like he was still in the second inning."
Prior seems to be fresh and locked in, but Wood is actually the single biggest swing factor in the Cubs' stretch run. That's because Wood exited his start Saturday with a back strain that left him unable to finish his pitches. He was wild both in and out of the strike zone. Baker said the back has bothered the right-hander "for a few starts" and Wood, 26, said he's been managing back trouble since he was 18. Baker talked about skipping Wood in his next start, an ominous sign that scares the daylights out of Cubs fans.
Baker has allowed Wood to throw 120 pitches or more in eight of his 25 starts -- and only two of those high pitch-count outings were complete games. Wood still doesn't command his fastball as well as he should in order to become an upper-echelon pitcher. He still hasn't won more than 13 games in a season, for instance, and the Cubs are only 14-11 when he has started this year, including 1-4 since he threw a season-high 130 pitches July 19. That's not ace material.
"He's still getting his mechanics together," Baker said, citing an oft-repeated refrain for a guy who has made 135 major league starts. "He's scratching the surface on what he can do."
Baker said he didn't put too much stock in pitch counts, explaining, "I have a performance count." If a pitcher retains his stuff deep into a game, Baker is likely to leave him in.
"We're trying to develop winning pitchers instead of strikeout/innings guys," Baker said. "As long as we keep rescuing them [with hooks], they won't know how to rescue themselves. Tommy John told me once a great pitcher can get out of three jams per game, a so-so pitcher two."
Zambrano, 22, would seem to require the most care among the Cubs' starters despite his hulking size. He has already thrown more innings this year (165 1/3) than in any of his previous professional seasons (his previous high was 158 1/3 in 2001). He has been terrific lately, going 5-1 in his past six starts. But September will be uncharted territory for him. Projecting what he might have left in October -- if the Cubs get that far -- is jumping the gun, but how Zambrano's arm holds up is a potential worry nonetheless. Zambrano, like Prior and Wood, is learning that his youth doesn't earn him any quick hooks from Baker.
"In one game he [Zambrano] wanted to get out after six and he went back out there and gave it up," Baker said. "I told him, 'Don't turn it off until I tell you to."'
The Cubs play 11 of their next 17 games against Houston and St. Louis. Then they close the season with a relatively easy run, with series against Milwaukee, Montreal, Cincinnati, the New York Mets and Pittsburgh, none of whom are serious contenders. It's a good schedule for a good team. But in the end, the difference will be whether Wood stays healthy, Zambrano has something left in his tank, and Prior continues to hold up pitching deep into games as well as he has thus far.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci covers baseball for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com. Click here to send a question to his Mailbag.