CHICAGO – Slowly and deliberately, Mark Prior strode toward a major-league pitching mound for the first time in nine months Sunday. Thirty steps he took, each short, like this was going to be an event to savor in small bites.
In another hopeless season for the Chicago Cubs, Prior represented a final glimmer of what could have been, because what might be is not worth thinking about, not with Derrek Lee still disabled, Kerry Wood felled by a sore arm and Dusty Baker's job as manager about as secure as a fast-food worker's. And what came of that gleam? Oh, just your typical leadoff home run, one of three longballs in a six-run first inning that tapered into an 80-car pileup of an outing and 12-3 victory by the Detroit Tigers.
Not that there was any question of imminence, but the Cubs' season officially died Sunday. They have lost six in a row, their third such streak this season, and, at 26-42, can claim the third-worst record in baseball, besting only the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates. Since Lee went down with a broken wrist April 19, the Cubs are 17-37, and teams have outscored them by 82 runs for the season.
The grim facts were supposed to disappear for at least one afternoon. Prior, the 25-year-old who finished third in the 2003 National League Cy Young voting, would return from a shoulder injury on everything short of a mounted white horse. He would energize Wrigley Field and give the forlorn at least one reason to keep watching and offer the drunks a reason to stay sober.
Then the clouds drew over Wrigley and cried droplets that dampened the field, not to mention the mood, which turned downright hostile when Prior finally ended the nine-batter first inning by retiring the pitcher and, if possible, worsened when he gave up his fourth home run in the fourth inning.
"I basically sucked today," Prior said, and good thing he was succinct, because the Cubs' public relations department yanked him away before he could say much more. "You give up six runs, you make it extremely tough on the other 24 guys to even give you a chance. It was not good."
As debuts went, it was somewhere between New Coke and "Ishtar."
The 39,938 who braved the Cubs – watching them play takes far more fortitude than sitting through some rain – saw Prior come out with five straight fastballs to Tigers leadoff hitter Curtis Granderson, hovering between 88 mph and 92 mph, and far shy of the 95 or 96 Prior usually registers. The sixth pitch was a breaking ball that barely broke, a recurring theme Sunday, and the seventh was a 91-mph fastball Granderson deposited in the bleachers.
"He made mistakes," Granderson said. "And our guys took advantage. It was starting to rain. The conditions weren't ideal for him to start. I think he knew he was jacked up a little bit to start and maybe wanted to tone it down."
Not to pitching-machine level, of course, though in the first inning Prior could have been mistaken for one. Placido Polanco rifled the next pitch up the middle, and the next batter, catcher Vance Wilson, laid down a bunt that Prior fielded cleanly. His throw to first base bounced about 10 feet in front of Tony Womack, and Wilson was safe on the error.
Prior paced. He took his cap off. He wiped his mouth. He kicked dirt. These are his nervous tics. He had every reason to be panicky after Carlos Guillen drove in Polanco and Wilson with a three-run opposite-field home run, and even more after Chris Shelton hit a two-run shot to dead center.
"I had no feel," Prior said. "I didn't throw any strikes in the first inning. I got behind in counts and, obviously, they were swinging well. That's the bottom line."
No, the bottom line is that Prior gave up eight runs on seven hits in 3 2/3 innings before Baker made the mercy call for reliever Roberto Novoa, who yielded four more home runs. On one dank afternoon, Prior and Novoa each allowed more homers than Los Angeles Dodgers starter Brad Penny has given up in 83 innings this season.
The Cubs' psyche was like a Jenga board, Prior's return being the only piece that held it together. As much as Lee will help the lineup, the Cubs win and lose with their pitching, and Prior's first start sends the tower tumbling and Baker grasping for any semblance of an answer.
"He said he was ready," Baker said.
"They were blasting that ball pretty good," Baker said.
"Hate for him to come back and get roughed up like that," Baker said.
He didn't have anything more to say, and Prior wasn't allowed to say much of substance, and the Cubs' clubhouse was cold and lifeless and silent, baseball's version of a morgue following a winless homestand.
"We're not done yet," catcher Henry Blanco said. "I'm sure we're going to come back and do better."
Tough to do much worse, and the body language of Prior said as much. So calm and cool coming out of the dugout in the first inning, Prior exited the game with a hurried walk. It took only 24 steps to reach the dugout from the mound, and, much like those who watched the Cubs on Sunday, it was rather obvious why.
He couldn't wait to leave.