On the Mark
Prior strikes out 10, defeats Pirates in major league debutPosted: Wednesday May 22, 2002 11:12 PM
Updated: Thursday May 23, 2002 4:32 AM
CHICAGO (AP) -- Mark Prior sat in the dugout after he finished pitching and looked around Wrigley Field, taking in the roaring crowd and electric atmosphere.
And that's when it finally hit him. The phenom who's already got star billing had lived up to the hype, striking out 10 in his major league debut as the Chicago Cubs beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 7-4 Wednesday night.
"It's definitely an experience I'll never forget," Prior said after a celebratory dousing by his teammates. "I don't think I'll realize the magnitude of the game probably until the offseason.
"But obviously, it's something special."
So, it seems, is Prior. The No. 2 pick in last year's draft allowed two runs and four hits in six innings, walking two and hitting one batter. His only real blemish was a solo homer by Brian Giles.
"He's not yet the second coming of Tom Seaver after six innings," Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon cautioned. "Six innings doesn't really tell you much other than that he's got a great arm. Your headlines tomorrow will say otherwise."
Prior certainly convinced Cubs fans. The crowd of 40,138 at Wrigley Field -- the largest since Opening Day -- cheered his every strike. "K" signs hung from the left-field fence and a rooftop balcony.
As the Cubs shook hands on the field after the game, the fans chanted "Prior! Prior!" He acknowledged them by pumping his fist as he disappeared into the dugout.
"Awesome," Prior said of his reception. "I'm really glad I got a start at home first, just so I had their support."
Though the Cubs gave Prior an early lead on Sammy Sosa's solo homer and Fred McGriff's two RBIs, he had to sweat out the end as Adrian Brown and Jason Kendall hit RBI singles to pull Pittsburgh to 5-4.
"I was impressed with what he did today," Sosa said. "Going out there in front of 40,000 people and throwing the way he did, that was a good sign."
Dave Williams (2-5) allowed five runs and seven hits in 4 1/3 innings for his fourth straight loss. He's worked just 14 1/3 innings in his last four starts.
"He should have better command," McClendon said. "I'm a little puzzled right now. But I don't have a doghouse and I'm not sending the kid to the minors."
Touted as one of the best college pitchers ever after going 15-1 with a 1.69 ERA last year at Southern California, Prior has had a meteroic rise with the Cubs. He came to spring training not having pitched since the College World Series, yet dazzled the Cubs and their opponents with his potential.
Starting the season at Double-A West Tenn, he tore through the minor leagues. He went 5-2 with a 2.29 ERA in nine games at Class AA and Class AAA, striking out 79 while walking only 18.
The Cubs have struggled for the better part of a century, so any sliver of hope tends to be grabbed tight and squeezed until it chokes -- or leaves for another team. And the frenzy surrounding Prior (1-0) in Chicago has already reached a level usually reserved for Michael Jordan.
But the 21-year-old right-hander seems unaffected by the attention so far.
"There was a lot of pressure on him with all the fanfare," Cubs manager Don Baylor said. "His mental toughness is exceptional."
Prior sat at his locker before the game calmly reading a paper, occasionally bopping his head to Sosa's thumping CD. The fans gave a loud cheer when his name was called during pregame introductions, but he walked out to the mound as if it was just another game.
"I heard the crowd when I walked out and when I was warming up," he said. "But once I got in there, I was pretty much dialed in."
He struck out at least one batter every inning, and allowed only one extra-base hit -- the homer by Giles leading off the sixth. Prior's only real trouble came in the second, when he walked Rob Mackowiak on four pitches and hit Kendall in the left shoulder with a pitch.
Prior's teammates helped him with an impressive double play -- third baseman Bill Mueller caught the ball on his knees yet still made a perfect throw to Bobby Hill at second -- but Reese followed with an RBI single.
"That second inning, I was almost a little more nervous than I was the first inning, knowing I had the lead and now I've got to keep the lead," Prior said. "When he made that huge double play, that just calmed me down."
He got out of the inning by striking out Williams.
Prior retired seven of eight batters during one stretch, getting help from center fielder Corey Patterson, who made two great catches at the wall. Not even Giles' homer seemed to distract Prior. He got Aramis Ramirez and Mackowiak for his ninth and 10th strikeouts, then retired Kendall on a groundout.
As Prior walked off the field, the fans gave him a standing ovation.
"I tried to enjoy the experience," he said. "I tried looking around, seeing what's going on around me in the stands. I tried to take it in because I knew I would never have a chance to do it again.
"At least not at this level, being my first start."
Notes: The Cubs have won three of four after dropping nine straight. ... Williams has given up at least one homer in seven of his first eight starts. ... Patterson was hit by a pitch in the face in the sixth inning, but stayed in the game.