Prior's arsenal is simple but effective. The 6'5" 230-pounder relies on two pitches, a mid-90s fastball, expertly located, and a low-80s curve with a sharp downward break. The fastball is the linchpin. Recalls Mike Gillespie, Prior's coach at USC, "He pitched to the outer two inches of the plate on both sides, and if he drew an umpire who was calling the outer six inches, forget it, because he could put it there, too." In 227 major league innings through Sunday, Prior averaged 10.9 strikeouts against 2.5 walks per nine innings.
"He's not worried about throwing an inside fastball to a Jeff Bagwell with men on second and third," Wood says. "If that's the pitch he needs to make, he'll make it." Prior throws his curve with as much precision as his fastball, and its action is devastating: It can start at the letters and break out of the strike zone, vanishing into the dirt with much more speed than the typical 12-6 curve.
Prior will occasionally show a straight change against lefthanded hitters. During a 16-strikeout performance against Milwaukee last Thursday—the Cubs lost 5-3, but Prior did not get the decision—he froze Geoff Jenkins with an 87-mph change, sandwiched between two 94-mph fastballs, a pitch so arresting it prompted Gillespie to immediately leave a message on Prior's cellphone telling him how impressed he was with the pitch. Rothschild believes that by the end of the season Prior will be regularly throwing the change against righthanders as well.
Though he's fundamentally sound, Prior, who was 6-6 in 19 starts last year, is still learning to endure the rigors of a full major league season. The day after a 119-pitch, 5?-inning outing against the Toronto Blue Jays last month, Prior told manager Dusty Baker that he was fatigued before being taken out and should have been more forthcoming about his condition. "Dusty said, 'Yeah, you have to, because you've got 32 starts to make, and we need you to be as strong in August and September as you are now,' " Prior recalls.
Like Wood four years earlier, Prior grappled with all the attention he received as a rookie last year. "People want to know who you are, what you do, and I'm a pretty private guy, so people coming up to me in restaurants blows me away," Prior says. "It's tough to be nice and also make people understand that you want to be respected and have a private life."
Neither Wood nor Prior will soon shake the burden of carrying the rotation and the Cubs' playoff hopes, but other loads have been lightened. One morning last week Ryan Harvey, the Cubs' first-round draft pick in June, visited Wrigley Field and took BP after accepting a $2.4 million signing bonus. Beforehand, Harvey, a big 18-year-old outfielder with a baby face that will get him carded until he's 30, toured the clubhouse, eyes agape. When Harvey came to Sammy Sosa's open locker and stopped, taking a long gaze inside, outfielder Tom Goodwin bellowed, "Got a new bonus baby! You ain't it anymore, Prior." At that, Prior cracked a smile.