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Prior leads Cubs' win for a 2-1 series edge
CHICAGO -- Mark Prior was more than ready for his first playoff start. He went out and pitched one of the best games of his life.
Prior threw a two-hitter and outpitched Greg Maddux as the Chicago Cubs beat the Atlanta Braves 3-1 Friday night to take a 2-1 lead in their best-of-five NL playoff series.
It was the first complete game by a Cubs pitcher in the postseason since Claude Passeau threw a one-hitter to beat the Detroit Tigers 3-1 in Game 3 of the 1945 World Series.
Matt Clement will start today when the Cubs try to capture their first postseason series since winning the 1908 World Series. Russ Ortiz, the Braves' 21-game winner who took the loss in Game 1, will go on three days' rest.
The Braves will need to wake up their bats and start catching the ball after making four errors Friday.
Atlanta led the NL in every major hitting category this season: batting average (.284), homers (a franchise-record 235) and runs (907, another club mark), but the 23-year-old Prior was simply too good.
"This offense is very good, you've got to respect what they can do," Prior said.
He gave up only Marcus Giles' single to shallow right-center in the third and Mark DeRosa's pinch-hit double leading off the eighth. Atlanta spoiled the shutout when DeRosa moved up on a groundout and scored on Giles' sacrifice fly.
Prior, who won 18 games in his first full major league season, walked four, struck out seven and was bolstered by a frenetic crowd at Wrigley Field.
The Cubs got to Maddux in the first on Randall Simon's two-out, two-run single that followed a key stolen base and wild pitch. Aramis Ramirez, acquired from the Pirates during the season just as Simon was, added a two-out RBI double in the eighth, and Prior made it stand up.
"I thank Pittsburgh for letting us have them, and they've been absolutely awesome for us," Prior said.
Maddux lasted six innings, giving up six hits and two runs in his 31st playoff appearance, including 29 starts.
Chicago increased the lead to 3-1 in the eighth when Moises Alou singled off Kevin Gryboski, stole second and scored when Ramirez hit a drive into the ivy in right-center for a ground-rule double.
It was Giles who collided with Prior on the basepaths July 11, hurting the young right-hander's shoulder and eventually landing him on the disabled list.
When Prior came off the DL on Aug. 4, he was one of baseball's most dominant pitchers, going 10-1 down the stretch to lead the Cubs to their first division title since 1989 -- when Maddux was still in Chicago.
Prior also hit Gary Sheffield in the left hand with a pitch in the sixth, but got out of the inning when Chipper Jones and Javy Lopez hit into forceouts.
Sheffield, who bruised his hand, was 0-for-2 with a walk and is just 1-for-10 in the series.
Maddux, who won the first of his four Cy Young Awards in 1992, his last year with the Cubs, gave up two first-inning runs and the Braves couldn't catch up.
Kenny Lofton fouled off four straight pitches and singled on a 2-2 pitch to start the bottom of the first. Mark Grudzielanek dropped down a bunt and Braves first baseman Robert Fick -- who had a key potential double-play grounder go off his glove in Game 1 -- slipped trying to field the ball and Grudzielanek reached on a single.
After Sammy Sosa struck out and Alou flied to center, Lofton stole third with Grudzielanek moving to second on Maddux's wild pitch in the dirt that got away from Lopez.
Simon then dropped a single to right in front of Sheffield as Wrigley Field went bonkers with Cubs fans doing their version of the Tomahawk Chop.
With the Braves coming to bat in the top of the ninth, the crowd began to chant in unison: "Let's Go Prior!"
Prior showed a few early jitters in his first playoff game, issuing back-to-back walks to Sheffield and Jones with two outs before fanning Lopez to end the threat.
"I think the first two walks, I was letting the crowd and the whole surrounding environment affect me," Prior said. "I saw what Greg did, taking some time. He felt like he was in control."
As the Cubs were being introduced about 15 minutes before the first pitch, a hard rain began to fall at Wrigley Field, sending the grounds crew scrambling to get the tarp on the field. The start was delayed 31 minutes.
Notes: The ball-strike feature on the old scoreboard in center field malfunctioned in the first inning and a half and balls and the count had to be put on the message board. ... Most fans were bundled in coats. Game-time temperature was 54 degrees. Announced attendance was 39,982. ... Maddux beat the Cubs in Game 3 to clinch the 1998 division series.