Prior closes the deal

Tribune staff reporter

Mark Prior was in no way comparing himself to Curt Schilling or Randy Johnson.

But after the Cubs' 21-year-old rookie finished the first complete game of his professional career on Sunday, a 4-1 victory over Colorado, he had this to say about his 13-strikeout, five-hit performance:

"I've always prided myself, from high school and college, on closing out my games. One day I hope to reach a level where, like Schilling and Johnson, I close out more games."

The names of the Arizona Diamondbacks' workhorses easily rolled off Prior's tongue, almost as easily as his fastball, his breaking pitches and his changeup eluded the bats of the team with the second-best batting average (.269) in the National League.

That ease of delivery is what persuaded manager Bruce Kimm and pitching coach Larry Rothschild to send Prior out to the mound in the ninth inning after he had struggled through the 24-pitch eighth that run his count to 120.

"Mark was on his last batter when [the eighth] ended," Kimm said. "But he was throwing very well. We wanted to see him close it out."

"He stayed smooth, almost effortless, throughout," Rothschild said. "We watched him very carefully. He's been impressive since Day 1, but we want to be careful how we use him."

In the first inning Prior gave the sellout crowd of 38,474 a preview of the afternoon's entertainment by striking out the side.

Thus began Prior's total domination of the first five men in the Rockies' lineup. Jay Payton, Terry Shumpert, Todd Helton, Todd Zeile and Jack Cust went 0-for-18 with 10 strikeouts.

Prior and Rothschild placed a lot of importance on Prior's throwing first-pitch strikes to 16 of the 24 batters he faced in the first seven innings.

"Throwing first-pitch strikes or strikes on two of the first three pitches is always important," Prior said. "It puts batters back on the defensive. It sets them up for pitches later in the count."

In the eighth inning when the Rockies scored their only run on a double play, Prior threw first pitches outside the strike zone to the first four batters he faced. He was just 2-for-8 on first-pitch strikes in then last two innings.

"They hit the balls pretty hard in the eighth," Prior said, "but we were able to make the double play. At that point we were willing to trade a run for [the outs]."

The Cubs followed their recent practice of scoring early and then putting their offense in mothballs. They scored four runs in the first two innings, all of them with two outs.

Fred McGriff's double and Moises Alou's single drove in runs in the first inning. McGriff's RBI was the 1,475th of his career and tied him with former Cub Billy Williams for 41st on the all-time list.

Mark Bellhorn's home run, his 18th of the season, with Alex Gonzalez on base produced the two in the second.

That was enough for Prior, who improved to 5-3.

"I've thrown 136 pitches before, in college," Prior said. "Besides, I get an extra day off before I pitch again."

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