With Cubs struggling, expectations on Prior even bigger

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

CHICAGO -- The expectations on Chicago Cubs pitching phenom Mark Prior aren't so big.

All the No. 2 pick in last summer's amateur draft has to do is revive baseball's perennial losers. Not only have the Cubs not won a World Series since 1908, they haven't had back-to-back winning seasons since 1971-72.

And at 15-28 after splitting Tuesday's doubleheader against Pittsburgh, they're in trouble well before the usual June swoon.

But no pressure, really.

"You wish they were winning a little bit more. But hopefully things can turn around," Prior said Tuesday. "I'm not here to try to do anything special.

"Like I said, I got called up to do one thing and that's just do what I've been doing. So I'm just going to go out and do what I can, give them some good innings and hopefully keep them close and give them a chance to win at the end."

Touted as one of the best college pitchers ever, Prior will make his major league debut tonight against the Pirates -- less than a year after leaving Southern California. He dazzled the Cubs in spring training even though he hadn't pitched since the College World Series, then tore through the minor leagues.

He went 5-2 with a 2.29 ERA in nine games at Double- and Triple-A, striking out 79 while walking only 18.

"It's unfair to expect he'll dominate in the major leagues the way he's dominated in the minor leagues," Andy MacPhail, the Cubs president and general manager, said Saturday after announcing Prior's promotion. "But it's pretty evident that he's ready, and it's pretty evident that we can use him here."

That's an understatement. Chicago's victory Sunday snapped a nine-game losing streak, its longest since 1997. Going into the doubleheader, the Cubs were 10 1/2 games out of first place in the NL Central and a stunning 6-14 at Wrigley Field, not exactly the Friendly Confines.

The Cubs are hitting .231, second-worst in the NL, and Sammy Sosa (.324) and Corey Patterson (.322) are the only position players above .300. Fred McGriff and Moises Alou are scuffling along well below average, with McGriff hitting only .217 and Alou .161.

The pitching staff isn't immune, either, with a 4.21 ERA.

"We're (not) going to roll off 15 in a row just because Prior showed up," said Kerry Wood, one of the few Cubs not struggling. "But it gives us -- and the fans -- something else to look forward to. And he's got great stuff."

No question about that. Prior went 15-1 with a 1.69 ERA last year at USC. The right-hander had 202 strikeouts while allowing just 18 walks as he led the Trojans to the College World Series.

He won seven national player of the year awards including the Golden Spikes Award, which goes to the top amateur baseball player in the United States.

And, in the ultimate measuring stick, he's drawn more hype than Wood, who tied a major league record with 20 strikeouts in his fifth start and won NL rookie of the year honors in 1998.

"I wasn't looking from the outside in when I came up, but it looks like he's getting quite a bit more attention," Wood said. "But he's been getting it since he got drafted. I think he's gotten to the point where he's used to the attention.

"I don't think the pressure is going to get to him."

Prior's mother is vice principal of a middle school, and he continued taking classes at USC even after signing a $10.5 million contract. His big plans for Tuesday night? Going to the airport to pick up his girlfriend.

Still, asking a 21-year-old to be the savior of a team that's been struggling for most of a century is a bit much.

"They're always unfair to guys that come up," Cubs veteran catcher Joe Girardi said. "But that's part of it. Every first-round pick is always going to have that pressure."

And so far, Prior seems to be taking it in stride. Though he said he doesn't read what's written about him, he knows expectations are high.

When he arrived at Wrigley on Tuesday, someone posted the back page of the Chicago Sun-Times on the clubhouse greaseboard. "The Can't-Miss Kid," screamed the headline. Above it were pictures of Prior, Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson.

"I'm not going to change what I've done. I'm just going to go out there and have some fun," Prior said. "One of two things is going to happen: I'm going to do well or I'm going to do bad. Either way, I've got to come back the next day.

"They called me up to do a good job," he added. "Hopefully I can get it done."

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