05/23/2002 00:28 am ET
Prior arrives in fine fashion
Rookie strikes out 10 in six innings for first win
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
CHICAGO -- Ever since Don Baylor saw Mark Prior in Spring Training, he's been looking forward to when he could write the young right-hander's name on the lineup card.
That day came Wednesday and Prior didn't disappoint.
"He came out today and pitched a great game," Chicago's Sammy Sosa said. "We know we have another future star in our rotation."
The Cubs' 2001 No. 1 draft pick (No. 2 overall) struck out 10 over six innings and won his Major League debut, a 7-4 decision against the Pittsburgh Pirates. It's the most strikeouts by a Cubs pitcher in his big league debut since divisional play began in 1969.
"I've had this anticipation probably since the first time I watched him throw in Spring Training," said Baylor, the Cubs manager. "It's finally coming to life today. I thought about it for the last week when I knew it was going to happen."
Even Baylor got caught in the hype over the pitching phenom.
"My ticket requests went up," Baylor said.
The right-hander, who zoomed through nine starts in the minor leagues, seemed to have little problems. He gave up four hits, including Brian Giles' ninth home run, and walked two over six innings.
"He's not quite the second-coming of Tom Seaver just yet," Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon said. "Six innings doesn't make a career. But he did a good job. I can see why they are so excited."
It will be some time before Prior realizes just what happened.
"It was kind of surreal," he said. "I felt the same. I was out there throwing and my body felt the same, mentally I felt the same.
"But once I was taken out," he said, "I was sitting in the dugout and looking around and seeing how many fans there were and how great they were during the game. It was definitely an experience that I'll never forget."
Prior took care of a lot of firsts. He gave up his first hit to Chad Hermansen, who was his first batter. Giles was his first strikeout victim and also hit the first home run.
His teammates celebrated the victory with a postgame shower of an unspecified alcoholic beverage, orchestrated by another first-round pick, Kerry Wood.
"I kind of got dumped with some liquid," Prior said. "It was congratulations all around. These guys have been great. It's definitely big help for me to know I've got their respect."
Fans in the left field bleachers, who have been holding up "K" cards for each of Wood's strikeouts since he debuted in 1998, apparently adjusted their priorities Wednesday. They held up the same "K" cards but they were preceded by "M-A-R-K."
Kids in the left field family section also taped a "K" onto the back fence for each whiff.
"There's a lot of pressure on him with all the fanfare," Baylor said. "It's probably tough for anybody, especially a young kid whose first time pitching is at home. But his mental toughness is exceptional."
"When he struck out Giles and (Aramis) Ramirez in the first inning, I knew I probably wasn't going to have to say too much," Cubs catcher Joe Girardi said. "The wind was blowing out 20 miles an hour and that's not an easy thing to do. He made a bunch of great pitches that inning. I knew he was pretty calm and that's the way he's been since I met him."
Before the game, Prior was the picture of calm. He sat in front of his locker reading USA Today less than four hours before the first pitch. Television cameras focused on him there and when he took the field for batting practice. He was totally at ease, joking with teammates, and listening to second baseman Bobby Hill jokingly chirp that he didn't get the same kind of hype before his Major League debut on May 10.
"I've got two weeks on you already," Hill said.
"I felt as normal as could be," said Prior, whose debut was officially witnessed by 40,138 fans plus another 150-plus media. "I think the biggest thing for me was having my family here, hanging out with my brother, sister and girlfriend. I think it would've been a lot tougher if I was on the road and didn't have people around that I usually have around and sitting there thinking about it non-stop.
"Basically I had a normal day - breakfast, lunch and came to the park. I didn't really think about it a whole lot."
It's going to be tough for Prior to live up to the hype. Baylor knows it. "It's like in Spring Training, we saw some times he was young and green and got knocked around a little bit but he bounces back," Baylor said. "With young pitchers you're going to have some of that, too. You're not going to have total dominance every single time out.
"He's human, he's going to have to learn to pitch here at this level and he's been a great student of the game," Baylor said. "He'll survive."
What was it Baylor liked about Prior?
"How he's deceptive," Baylor said. "The ball comes out of his hand and you can't really follow the ball."
Former big leaguer and ESPN analyst Harold Reynolds called Baylor after watching Prior pitch for USC in the College World Series last June. Reynolds told Baylor that Prior was "the real deal." And that was last summer.
"He's an easy 95 (mph), if that's anything," Baylor said. "He throws a lot harder than it looks. When hitters walk in, I imagine they'll probably experience that for themselves. It's a nice, easy fluid motion and the ball's on top of you. He doesn't give you a great look at the ball."
"It all comes down to executing your pitches," Girardi said. "He had to make the pitches and he did."
Carrie Muskat covers the Cubs for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.