Prior Earns High Marks In Major League Debut

May 23, 2002

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By NANCY ARMOUR
AP Sports Writer

CHICAGO (AP) - Mark Prior sat in the dugout after he finished pitching andlooked around Wrigley Field, taking in the roaring crowd and electricatmosphere.

And that's when it finally hit him. The phenom who's already got starbilling had lived up to the hype, striking out 10 in his major league debut asthe Chicago Cubs beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 7-4 Wednesday night.

'It's definitely an experience I'll never forget,' Prior said after acelebratory dousing by his teammates. 'I don't think I'll realize themagnitude 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 runsand four hits in six innings, walking two and hitting one batter. His only realblemish was a solo homer by Brian Giles.

Prior became only the 14th Cubs starter since 1920 to win his big leaguedebut - something not even Greg Maddux or Kerry Wood accomplished.

'He's not yet the second coming of Tom Seaver after six innings,' Piratesmanager Lloyd McClendon cautioned. 'Six innings doesn't really tell you muchother than that he's got a great arm. Your headlines tomorrow will sayotherwise.'

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 fromthe 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 disappearedinto the dugout.

'Awesome,' Prior said of his reception. 'I'm really glad I got a start athome first, just so I had their support.'

Though the Cubs gave Prior an early lead on Sammy Sosa's solo homer and FredMcGriff's two RBIs, he had to sweat out the end as Adrian Brown and JasonKendall hit RBI singles to pull Pittsburgh to 5-4.

But pinch-hitter Darren Lewis and Joe Girardi each had RBI doubles in thebottom of the eighth, and Antonio Alfonseca got five outs for his seventh save.

'I was impressed with what he did today,' Sosa said. 'Going out there infront 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 forhis fourth straight loss. He's worked just 14 1-3 innings in his last fourstarts.

'He should have better command,' McClendon said. 'I'm a little puzzledright now. But I don't have a doghouse and I'm not sending the kid to theminors.'

Touted as one of the best college pitchers ever after going 15-1 with a 1.69ERA last year at Southern California, Prior has had a meteroic rise with theCubs. He came to spring training not having pitched since the College WorldSeries, yet dazzled the Cubs and their opponents with his potential.

Starting the season at Double-A West Tenn, he tore through the minorleagues. He went 5-2 with a 2.29 ERA in nine games at Double- and Triple-A,striking out 79 while walking only 18.

The Cubs have struggled for the better part of a century, so any sliver ofhope tends to be grabbed tight and squeezed until it chokes - or leaves foranother team. And the frenzy surrounding Prior (1-0) in Chicago has alreadyreached 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 managerDon Baylor said. 'His mental toughness is exceptional.'

Prior sat at his locker before the game calmly reading a paper, occasionallybopping his head to Sosa's thumping CD. The fans gave a loud cheer when hisname was called during pregame introductions, but he walked out to the mound asif 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 oneextra-base hit - the homer by Giles leading off the sixth. Prior's only realtrouble came in the second, when he walked Rob Mackowiak on four pitches andhit Kendall in the left shoulder with a pitch.

Prior's teammates helped him with an impressive double play - third basemanBill Mueller caught the ball on his knees yet still made a perfect throw toBobby Hill at second - but Reese followed with an RBI single.

'That second inning, I was almost a little more nervous than I was thefirst inning, knowing I had the lead and now I've got to keep the lead,' Priorsaid. '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 fromcenter fielder Corey Patterson, who made two great catches at the wall. Noteven Giles' homer seemed to distract Prior. He got Aramis Ramirez and Mackowiakfor 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 Iknew 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 inthe game.

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