Any questions concerning Mark Prior's shoulder were laid to rest Sunday at Dodger Stadium, just as questions cropped up about Sammy Sosa's future in Chicago.
The Cubs flew home with a 4-2 record on the West Coast trip, trailing Houston by 2½ games as they begin a four-game series at Wrigley Field.
In his second start since coming off the disabled list with a bruised shoulder, Prior (10-5) allowed five hitsincluding two infield singlesin a dominant outing. Sosa had three of the five Cubs hits on the afternoon, including a 465-foot, two-run homer to center field in the first and a 448-foot solo shot in the fourth.
Manager Dusty Baker said the center-field shot was the longest he'd seen by a right-handed hitter in Los Angeles. Willie Stargell holds the Dodger Stadium mark with a 506-foot home run that cleared the roof in right field.
"Sammy basically just kind of put us on his shoulders, and we rode him," Prior said. "He's going to do that a lot of days."
Before the game Sosa's agent, Adam Katz, confirmed Sosa is considering his option to explore free agency after the season. While few believe Sosa will actually find more money elsewhere, his recent power surge has him believing the market will be there for him if he decides to go for it.
The 24 games Sosa missed because of toenail surgery and the corked-bat episode may have made him even stronger for a second-half run.
"I'm always strong," a defiant Sosa said. "I'm always strong."
With the Cubs leading 3-1 in the ninth, shortstop Augie Ojeda robbed Dave Roberts of a leadoff single, diving on a grounder into the hole and nailing Roberts at first. After Shawn Green's two-out single, Baker made a trip to the mound with Jeromy Burnitz headed to the plate.
"I thought I was done," Prior said.
But Prior convinced Baker to leave him in, saying the magic words, "It's my game to lose."
"He was all right with that," Prior said.
Prior promptly struck out Burnitz on his 116th pitch, ending the Dodgers' six-game winning streak.
The Cubs managed only five hits off Brown (11-6) and two relievers and had only 13 hits in the series.
Now come the Astros, a team with the kind of respect the Cubs hope to capture. Baker knows the Cubs will have to earn it, since practically no one will give them the benefit of the doubt.
"Not yet," Baker said. "Where we last year? Fifth? Where were we the year before, or the year before that? Basically people were looking at the Cardinals and the Astros this year. It takes a while and time to have respect and expectations."
In his three decades of major-league baseball, Baker guessed he has been associated with only nine or 10 teams that have not been in a pennant race.
"I haven't been on many teams in my life that haven't been included in some kind of race," Baker said. "All you can ask for is a shot. No guarantees."