Prior Making a Pitch to Go Straight to Majors

March 22, 2002

AP Sports Writer

MESA, Ariz. - A year ago, Mark Prior was toying with hitters from UCLA,Long Beach State and Georgia, befuddling them with a dazzling arsenal ofpitches.

This year he could be facing Frank Thomas, Barry Bonds and Jeff Bagwell.

The college player of the year last season, Prior is poised to make the hugeleap to the major leagues. If he's not part of the Chicago Cubs rotationwhen they leave spring training, it probably won't be long before he joinsthem.

'I'd really be surprised if he didn't make an impact for us this year,'veteran catcher Joe Girardi said. 'You could say every time a guy comes upyou don't know if he's ready for the experience and the pressure. But ifhe's not ready, I don't think he's that far from being ready.'

Prior was touted as one of the best college pitchers ever after going 15-1with a 1.69 ERA last year at USC. The right-hander had 202 strikeouts whileallowing just 18 walks as he led the Trojans to the College World Series.

He won seven national player of the year awards, including the Golden SpikesAward, which goes to the top amateur baseball player in the United States.The Cubs made him the second pick in the amateur draft.

But doing well in college is no guarantee for success in the majors. Prior,though, appears to have made the transition with ease.

'You don't see kids this far along at 21 years old,' Girardi said. 'Youdon't see many kids with that kind of stuff he's got at 21, either.'

In his first outing, he gave up one run and three hits in two inningsagainst the San Francisco Giants. Five days later, he struck out seven andgave up just one hit in three innings against the White Sox.

'When he got me with a strikeout, I thought, `OK,'' Frank Thomas said. 'Thenwhen he struck out Magglio (Ordonez) next, I knew he was for real.'

Prior struggled in his next outing, allowing five runs and five hits in twoinnings. He got knocked around early in his first start, too, allowing fourruns in the first inning Tuesday.

But after giving up a three-run homer to Alex Ochoa, Prior settled down andstruck out Rob Sasser to end the inning, and then allowed only one more hitin two innings.

Of the last 29 pitches he threw, 24 were for strikes. He also drove in threeruns with a double in his first at-bat.

'I think that's what I needed to learn. Basically to get humbled a littlebit,' Prior said. 'Guys who have been in the league 12, 15 years still gethit around sometimes. I think it's just dealing with that, getting it out ofthe way and learning from it and learning how to come back from it.'

Besides his considerable physical skills, Prior has also shown the maturityof a veteran pitcher. Though the Cubs signed him to a $10.5 million,five-year deal, he's been confident, not arrogant.

He's eager to learn, taking advice from his teammates and pitching coachLarry Rothschild. And he's been saying all the right things, refusing to getcaught up in the debate over whether he belongs in the majors now.

He'll likely make one more start before the Cubs decide what to do with him.

'I don't know what the whole situation is with him right now, but he looksready to me,' Sammy Sosa said. 'I want that guy on my team.'

The Cubs probably will start Prior at Double-A West Tenn, giving him achance to adjust to professional baseball. It's similar to what they didwith Kerry Wood four years ago. Wood, who'd already had three seasons in theminors, went to Triple-A Iowa after an outstanding spring and was called upApril 10.

While Prior feels he's ready for the majors, he won't argue with whateverdecision the Cubs make.

'I feel like I've got the physical ability to go out and pitch,' he said. 'Ifeel like I can handle the pressure emotionally. I don't get rattled.

'But it's a decision for somebody else,' he added, 'not me.'

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