It was a chilly October night at Wrigley. The Chicago Cubs were playing host to the Florida Marlins in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS. Holding a 3-2 series advantage, the Cubs brought a 3-0 lead into the top of the eighth.
After getting Mike Mordecai to pop out to begin the inning, Cubs 23-year-old ace Mark Prior had the Marlins right where he wanted them. More importantly, he had the Cubs a mere five outs away from their first World Series appearance in 58 years. Five outs away from a chance to end 95 years of misery.
With a regular-season resume that boasted an 18-6 record to go along with a 2.43 ERA and a 10.45 K/9 ratio, who would have doubted that Prior was the man to get the job done?
However, even the most casual of baseball fans know what came next.
Double. Bartman. RBI single. Gonzalez error. Two-run double. Just like that, the Cubs all-but-certain trip to the World Series didn’t look so certain anymore. Five more Marlins’ runs, a Game 7 defeat, and the Cubs’ most promising of chances was stolen right out of their hands (or glove, so to speak).
The Cubs haven’t won a playoff game since. Unfortunately for Prior, his career took an eerily similar turn for the worse as well.
After missing only a month due to injuries during his first two seasons in the majors, Prior became a regular on the DL from 2004-2006, missing a staggering nine months of playing time. If that wasn’t bad enough, shoulder surgery would have him miss the entire 2007 season as well.
During that stretch, Prior made 57 appearances, compiling a 18-17 record to go along with a pedestrian 4.26 ERA. A mere shadow of the pitcher who once dominated opposing hitters at will in 2003 on his way to finish third in the NL Cy Young voting. He hasn’t appeared in a Major League game since 2006.
Fast forward six years. After wooing Boston Red Sox director of personnel Dave Finley in Spring Training, Prior secured himself a minor league contract with the Pawtucket PawSox.
While it’s a fresh start, it’s a far cry from where Prior thought he’d be at this point in his career. Now 31, nobody would blame him for throwing in the towel with everything he’s been through. According to Mike Scandura in an ESPNBoston article:
There were times when I thought it was time to call it a day, [Prior admitted]...There were times when I was really frustrated. But, ultimately, I still love playing the game. I still love going out and getting guys out.
Getting guys out is an understatement. Try a 20.5 K/9 ratio on for size.
Granted it’s only a small sample, but Prior has been superb thus far. In seven relief appearances for the PawSox, Prior is 1-0 while recording 10.1 IP, one save, four earned runs and a blistering 23 strikeouts.
While impressed, PawSox pitching coach Rich Sauveur isn’t going to jump on the bandwagon just yet, as reported by the ESPNBoston article:
He hasn’t overcome anything yet, [Sauveur said.] You have to remember he’s in Triple-A right now. His goal, obviously, is to get back to the big leagues. When he gets there, you can say he’s overcome something. Right now, he’s still working on everything.
On June 24, Prior suffered a minor setback when he was placed on the seven-day disabled list with a strained oblique muscle. Luckily, the injury was short-term and he returned to action July 8.
As reported in the same ESPNBoston article:
For me, I respect the fact that health is a major issue with me, [Prior said.] It could turn on the drop of a dime. And I know that. But I also know that I can get guys out. I can still perform. I can still compete at a high level.
If he wants to make an impact in the Red Sox bullpen he’s going to need to be performing at a high level. The Red Sox currently hold the sixth-best bullpen ERA in the Majors at 3.08. So why throw a wrench into a bullpen that seems to be clicking on all cylinders?
Also working against Prior is his age. A lot of people don’t believe he’s got enough left in his tank. Don’t count Sauveur among them, as reported in the ESPNBoston article:
I wouldn’t say the odds are against him...[Sauveur countered.] [He’s got] plenty of years left....Since he’s been here, he’s shown me that he’s healthy...and could be called upon at any moment. Right now, everything’s going well.
But don’t be expecting Prior to be waiting by the phone. He’s realized that nothing good comes from looking too far ahead. According to the same ESPNBoston article:
At this point in my career, I legitimately take it day-by-day...I’m having a good time with these guys and, yes, I want to get to the big leagues. I know I can still compete at that level. It’s about waking up and preparing to do my job and not worrying about...[all the] playing scenarios.
And if he keeps up that attitude, along with his current production, it won’t be long before it’ll be opposing major league hitters who’ll have to do all the worrying.