Prior Enjoying Comeback Attempt

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Mark Prior hardly stopped in Triple-A on his way up the minor league chain the first time. The second overall pick in the 2001 draft, Prior debuted in the Double-A Southern League in 2002 with six starts, then made just three starts with Triple-A Iowa before finding himself in Wrigley Field in May. His catcher for his major league debut was Joe Girardi.

"It was such a quick trip back in 2002, I barely had time to figure out what city I was in," Prior said in July. "I was just getting acclimated to pro ball in general; everything was so new.

"So this is a different experience, that's definitely true."

Prior, now 31, found himself back in Triple-A for the first time since a 2006 rehabilitation start. He picked up his first win since '06 as well as his first professional save with Pawtucket, where he had made 10 appearances. That in itself is significant—he made 10 in 2010 between indy ball and the Rangers organization, and just 11 with three stops in the Yankees system last year.

"I threw around 20 innings in extended (spring training), and I've thrown around 12 here, so that's about as much as I've thrown in a season in probably six years," he said with a small laugh. "And my arm feels good. My stuff is good.

"I'm trying to be honest with myself, and I know I'm walking way too many guys, and I know that I need to be more consistent. I need to pound the strike zone more. I feel like last year and this year, my stuff has been good enough to get people out at this level and at the major league level."

With all he's been through, it would be quite a feat for Prior to get back to that level—and it got harder when the Red Sox released him in late August.

Has It Been 10 Years?

He was the Stephen Strasburg of his day a decade ago, blazing from college at Southern California to a downtrodden big league franchise and lending it instant credibility.

The '02 Cubs finished 67-95; the next season, with Prior leading the team in victories and ranking second in innings (behind Carlos Zambrano) and strikeouts (behind Kerry Wood), they improved by 21 games and reached the National League Championship Series. Prior dominated the Braves in a four-hitter in the Division Series and went 18-6, 2.43 overall with a 245-50 strikeout-walk ratio in 211 innings.

Even after the Steve Bartman Game Six fiasco—it all happened with Prior on the mound—the future seemed bright for both Prior and the Cubs. That's when the litany of injuries began. It started with an Achilles tendon injury in 2004 and a compression fracture of his elbow in 2005, and in 2006 his shoulder injuries began. He wound up having two shoulder surgeries, in 2007 and '08, and says it took three years for his shoulder to truly start feeling better.

Getting healthy enough to pitch took longer than Prior wanted, obviously. It did not diminish his desire to compete. His motivation to return has nothing to do with trying to recapture his early 2000s form and everything to do with trying to get out the next batter he faces.

"I enjoy playing, and I enjoy competing," he said. "I enjoy trying to get guys out. As a starter, I enjoyed the challenge of trying to go as long as I could, trying to get as many guys out as I could.

"It's a little different as a reliever, but whether we're up, down or tied, whatever, the drive is still to help my team win ballgames."

Prior seemed to be adjusting to his new role. He was throwing in the low 90s, muscling up to 93 mph at times, and throwing an inconsistent but at times sharp slider. He didn't locate as well as he'd wanted, though, and was 1-0, 3.96 with 23 walks and 38 strikeouts in 25 innings.

Prior was enjoying his longest stint in the minor leagues. He was glad to not be the only veteran on the roster; the PawSox clubhouse has included other vets such as Scott Podsednik, Mike Rivera, Jason Repko and Brandon Duckworth, all of whom Prior is quick to point out are older than him.

And his wife and three children, who range in age from 2 to 5, got to visit from his San Diego home and see him pitch in games that matter. That wasn't his motivation to get back on the mound, but it was a nice side benefit.

"When I pitched indy ball, my oldest was obviously younger and she was a little scared of the mascot. Now they love the mascot, the atmosphere, being around the ballpark," he said with a laugh. "And it's much better here than in extended. There my kids got pretty close to some of the pitching coaches, but that's about it."

It's a different ride than the one Prior went on before, one with a lot less hoopla and a lot less fanfare. Now, he's a just a pitcher trying to get outs, trying to get to the major leagues like all his Pawtucket teammates.

And at this point in his career, after all the injuries and the rehabilitation, that's enough.

"Do I ever expect to be the pitcher I was when I first got to the majors? No," he said. "It may happen, but I haven't set that as the bar or the goal. I'm just trying to get that next hitter out."