Former phenom Prior is pitching to be noticed

FULLERTON, Calif. – Mark Prior(notes) is facing a rag-tag team called the Tijuana Cimarrones for the second time in two days. The back-to-back appearances mark a milestone in his comeback from multiple maladies and surgeries, from replacing a debilitating pocketful of if-onlys with hope.

His stuff isn’t as sharp as the previous day, when he struck out the side on 10 pitches, all strikes. One batter walks and another belts a drive that Prior’s right fielder flags down over his shoulder at the warning track. Despite the catch, the batter touches them all as if he’d hit a home run, a goofy independent league moment that Prior does his best to ignore. He strikes out the last batter, giving him 20 in 10 innings since joining the Orange County Flyers of the Golden Baseball League nearly a month ago.

The scene is jarring to anyone who remembers Prior as the top prospect in baseball less than a decade ago, the second pick in the 2001 draft behind Joe Mauer(notes), signing for $10.5 million, at the time by far the largest contract for an American-born amateur. Imagine Stephen Strasburg(notes) celebrating his 30th birthday by pitching in front of 200 people, his most fervent wish that a major league team would offer a simple spring training invitation when the calendar turns.

[Related: Strasburg set for surgery]

Prior is Strasburg 1.0. He lived through the overblown hype, the unreal expectations, the fleeting dominance and the thud of an abrupt fall when his body broke down. Of course, Strasburg could easily return from Tommy John surgery as good as new. Prior wouldn’t wish the rest of his story on anybody, let alone a pitcher with as much promise as Strasburg.

He’s had two shoulder surgeries since he last pitched in the big leagues in 2006. Before that, he injured the shoulder during a baserunning collision and a line drive fractured his elbow. And far too often, he was throwing 120 pitches or more, the concept of protecting a young arm by monitoring pitch counts not yet a science accepted throughout baseball.

If only, if only, if only. His message to Strasburg is something the Washington Nationals rookie already practices: shut out distractions, quiet the noise, focus on rehab.

“I think there are some parallels from the standpoint of him being the first pick overall and coming out and being ready,” Prior said. “I know that with myself, and this is speaking from my experience, a lot of comments were made by people who had no clue what was going on, who didn’t know the real details. So for me, I think he needs to realize he’s under this microscope that nobody else has been under. I don’t believe I was ever under as intense a microscope as he is. We’re 10 years later, different media, the way we follow things in general is much more intense.

“He made 11 starts and the machine never died down. He’s in for a long road, although obviously the Tommy John success rate is good. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. From my experience, what he’s going to find out is that he needs to realize that it’s about him and what he’s trying to do, and try to block out as much of the other stuff as he can.”

By the time Prior’s arm wouldn’t respond anymore after a failed tryout with the San Diego Padres in 2007, he’d made $12.8 million. He’d started a family. He seriously considered quitting.

“At times it’s been rough,” he said. “It’s been extremely challenging from a physical standpoint. And, I guess, from a mental standpoint, too.”

But he heard the same comment from his wife, his parents, his agent, his friends.

“Do you want to look back in five years and wish you gave it one more shot?” he said. “Ultimately that was the decision. I’m young, I’m fortunate that I’m secure enough to where I can ride out a year and see what I can come up with. I want to play.”

Prior hasn’t allowed an earned run with the Flyers. His fastball has touched 92 mph. The hope might be more than a glimmer. Certainly it’s enough for him to set aside the if-onlys for the time being.

“Right now I’m finding out who I really am,” he said. “Obviously I was a power pitcher. But I’ve been 91, 92, so I’m not too far off from where I was. Everybody thinks I was this upper to mid-90s. For the most part I lived at 92, 93. I’m not throwing 85. I’m the same guy and I’m attacking hitters the way I used to.”

The biggest difference is diminished expectations. Prior no longer aspires to be the best pitcher in baseball. Cy Young awards aren’t in the equation. He wants to be a big leaguer again, to pitch in middle relief, maybe be trusted with the eighth inning every other day. So he’ll finish out the Flyers’ season, which, pleasantly, is concluding with a near-two week stint in Maui.

“Teams want to see me in game action,” he said. “They want to see me pitch one day, take a day off and pitch another day. They want to see me pitch two days in a row. They want to see me throw two innings.”

If-only has been replaced by what-if. It’s a feeling he hasn’t felt in a long time, a feeling of hope.