CHICAGO (MCT) - In the 11 months since his last major-league victory, Mark Prior endured trade rumors, pharyngitis, injury rumors, a shoulder strain, a lawsuit, whispers about his mental toughness, food poisoning, an oblique strain, hand cramps and a 10-game winless streak.
But Prior finally found some extra-strength pain relief from his problems Saturday afternoon at Wrigley Field with his first victory of 2006, a 7-5 victory over Pittsburgh.
Matt Murton and Angel Pagan hit home runs to help the Cubs put Prior in the victory column for the first time since Sept. 10, 2005, when he beat San Francisco 5-2 at AT&T Park.
The Cubs improved to 7-3 on the homestand, their first winning one since going 4-2 on the first of the season in April.
Manager Dusty Baker credited Prior's curve for the improved performance. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild told him to try a different grip.
"The ball was squirting out too early," Baker said. "You've seen a number of balls that were up, tumbling."
Prior conceded Rothschild's advice paid off Saturday.
"I just haven't been able to find the release point I want," Prior said. "I adjusted it a little, tinkering back and forth. I threw my breaking ball pretty good today. I threw it for strikes when I needed to, and balls when I wanted to. Whatever you have that specific day - you're not going to have everything every day."
During his previous 10 starts without a victory, Prior was 0-7 with a 6.18 earned-run average. He really hasn't been the same since being hit in the right elbow with a line drive off Brad Hawpe's bat on May 27, 2005. In his next 25 starts before Saturday, Prior was 7-11 with a 4.84 ERA. Most notably, he had failed to pitch past the sixth inning in 19 of those 25 starts, including his first seven in '06.
Saturday looked like a breakthrough day. Prior cruised into the sixth inning with a 4-2 lead. But he loaded the bases with two walks and a hit batter, then walked Ronny Paulino on four pitches to force in a run, prompting his exit after 52/3 innings and 103 pitches.
"We just can't get him through the 52/3rds mark," Baker said. "That final out has been tough. He'll get past it."
Pittsburgh left-hander Zach Duke, who came in with a 4-0 record and 0.56 ERA against the Cubs, gave up four first-inning run but managed to last seven innings, keeping the Pirates within striking distance.
The Cubs knocked out six hits off Duke in the four-run first, and could have added another run when Prior singled to center with two on and two outs. But Ronny Cedeno was thrown out easily at third before Murton crossed the plate, denying the Cubs a fifth run.
"Murton has to get across home plate, and Ronny can't get thrown out at third," Baker said. "The young guys, we still have to continue to teach, and they have to continue to play."
The Pirates capitalized on Cedeno's error in the second to score a run, and Paulino homered in the fifth for the 4-2 lead Prior took into the sixth.
Whenever the Pirates pulled to within a run, the Cubs answered with one of their own. That gave closer Ryan Dempster a comfy two-run cushion in the ninth, which he preserved for his 21st save.
(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.
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