10/08/2003 1:48 AM ET
Hurlers to bring heat in Game 2
Chicago's Prior hosts Florida's Penny at Wrigley
CHICAGO -- Losing the first game of a postseason series can give you that sinking, empty sort of feeling. But you might get some fast-acting relief, simply by contemplating the notion that your next starting pitcher will be Mark Prior.
By Mike Bauman / MLB.com
This is where the Chicago Cubs find themselves in the 2003 National League Championship Series. They lost a nail-biting, gut-wrenching, 11-inning job Tuesday night. But they do have Prior up next in their playoff rotation. And all he was in his very first full season under the big tent was one of the very best -- 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA, second in the NL in strikeouts with 245.
When Florida Marlins manager Jack McKeon was asked before Game 1 about the Wednesday night pitching matchup, he replied: "I don't even know who's pitching for them."
This may have been McKeon staying in character as a crusty, but still accessible old dude. It might have been McKeon trying to remind himself, his players and the media mob that these games must be played in order, one at a time. Or it might have been a manager trying to think about anything other than his team going against Prior.
Prior came into the Majors with considerable fanfare as the second pick overall in the 2001 First-Year Player Draft. He was practically Major League-ready emerging from college, the scouts said then, an astounding blend of power pitching, with the finesse of a mature pitcher. The thing is, he has met and maybe even exceeded all the expectations. This year, he was sidelined in July due to a shoulder injury suffered in a collision with Atlanta's Marcus Giles. But this may have been a blessing in disguise. Down the stretch, when young pitchers are supposed to "hit the wall," Prior merely hit his stride.
In August, he was 5-0 with a 0.69 ERA and he was named the NL's pitcher of the month. He encored in September with a 5-1 record and a 2.27 ERA. And then he won his only start in the Cubs' Division Series victory over the Braves. This is not a 23-year-old struggling to reach the finish line.
"I've thrown a lot of pitches lately, and thrown a lot of pitches down the stretch, but I feel fine," Prior said Tuesday. "I feel as good as I did early in the season. And I don't feel tired. If I was tired, I wouldn't know right now, there's no time to feel tired. There's no time to be sore. There's no time to be anything right now.
"This is what you dream about, and this is what you play for day-in and day-out through the course of the year, to be in the situation that we're in right now. We've got a long way to go if we want to get to that next step. But everybody is going to have to step up and play hard and fight through any nagging things they might have, mental or physical fatigue, you have to fight through it right now."
On the other side of it, well, it's typical that the members of a fine young Florida rotation will not get as much attention as Prior, and Kerry Wood, but they aren't exactly chopped liver, either. Brad Penny, 25, goes in Game 2 for the Marlins and he was 14-10 with a 4.13 ERA this season. He was 3-0 in September, he's a hard thrower, and in another circumstance he would be getting a ton of attention as a young pitcher on the rise. In this case, he's the guy pitching against Prior in the NLCS. But he's OK with that.
"I don't think it's tough," Penny said Tuesday. "When you go out there and you have to play against guys like that, you have to be on top of your game or you're not going to win. We've got a great staff. We've really come together this year. It's been fun for me. I think it's going to be a good series."
It looked Tuesday night like a terrific series. The Cubs obviously cannot afford to lose two straight at home. Their situation is serious, but not necessarily dire, because they have Mark Prior.
"He looks 23, but he certainly doesn't act 23," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said.
That's the deal. This game will not be viewed initially as the Cubs being down 0-1 and putting their fate in the hands of a kid. This game will be seen as the Cubs being down 0-1 and putting their fate in the hands of one of baseball's best pitchers.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.