SAN DIEGO—Mark Prior was relaxing on the couch before Tuesday night's game with San Diego at Qualcomm Stadium, mentally preparing himself for his first start in nearly a month.
In the opposite corner of the room, the clubhouse boom box was playing "You Light Up My Life," a leisurely ballad typically heard at weddings and proms before Prior was even born.
Kerry Wood changed the mood in the nick of time, turning off the music and keeping his teammate awake and alert.
Prior proceeded to pitch lights out against San Diego, picking up right where he left off before the All-Star break in the Cubs' 3-0 victory.
Shaking off the cobwebs in his hometown debut, Prior (9-5) shut out the Padres on 79 pitches through six innings, allowing two hits while striking out six.
"Coming in here there were a lot of emotions," Prior said. "We're playing good baseball and for me personally, coming off the disabled list, there was a lot of anxiety after not pitching for three weeks. Coming back here and pitching in your hometown in front of friends and family, there were a lot of things going on.
"Fortunately, I was able to throw the ball pretty good, the bullpen came in and did an outstanding job, and Aramis Ramirez hit a huge two-run home run."
With Houston and St. Louis both losing, the Cubs moved to 21/2 games behind the Astros and a half-game behind the Cardinals. It's the closest they've been to first since July 12, when they trailed Houston by two games.
"It's a big boost," manager Dusty Baker said. "We didn't know what we were going to get [in Prior]. But we knew we'd have a good chance in getting quality, because that's how he is."
With the Cubs leading 1-0 in the seventh, left-hander Mark Guthrie bailed Kyle Farnsworth out of a bases-loaded, one-out situation, striking out pinch-hitter Brian Buchanan and getting Gary Bennett to ground into a force play at third. After Ramirez added a two-run homer in the ninth, Joe Borowski overcame two Cubs errors, inducing a double-play grounder by Lou Merloni with the bases loaded to end it.
"There were a lot of heroes tonight," Baker said.
The Cubs staked Prior to a 1-0 lead on Ramon Martinez's RBI double off Brian Lawrence (5-14) in the third, and Prior soon went into hyperdrive. He breezed through the first four innings on 45 pitches, facing the minimum number of batters. The Padres only threat off Prior came in the fifth after an Hee Seop Choi error and a walk. Prior promptly struck out Bennett, ending the threat.
Prior was pitching in his first game since July 11, when he was flipped in midair in a base-running collision with Atlanta's Marcus Giles, landing hard on his right shoulder. The Cubs moved slowly and cautiously with Prior after he continued to feel soreness in the shoulder a few days after the injury, treating their $10 million bonus baby like the significant investment that he is.
"I was nervous," Prior admitted. "But when you step through the lines, everything else kind of goes away."