Mork and Mindy, Laverne and Shirley, Lucy and Ricky, Jerry and George, Joey and Chandler, Norm and Cliff….Prior and Wood. Since 2003, Mark Prior and Kerry Wood have been synonymous with one another. Rarely could a reporter mention one without the other….cue the “Married with Children” music. The past three seasons have begun with the infamous, “If Prior and Wood stay healthy….” Well, they have not and the Cubs have not done a thing. However, even as both are poised to begin a spring training healthy for the first time in years, they cannot escape each other, inevitably making their first appearances in the same game. Mark Prior and Kerry Wood have similar stories and eerily similar experiences. Both were fast-tracked to the majors and marked for stardom. As I wrote recently, Prior’s debut was the biggest story of the year to that point, and when Kerry struck out 20, it was the biggest story of that year, both occurring in the month of May. Both had flashes in their first full year, 1998 for Wood, 2003 for Prior and then both were felled by injury.
While they differ in mechanics, personality and looks, they suffered the same frustration and disappointment. After game 5 of the ’03 NLCS every fan was confident, Prior and Wood were pitching, the Cubs were not going to lose both, not possible. Both had fantastic campaigns in 2003, but since those two fateful games, neither pitcher has been the same.
Prior has been on the field more than most think, but he was a shell of his former self. He was the victim of freak injuries and line drives, but now his “loose” shoulder is in the spotlight. Maybe it was the collision with Marcus Giles, maybe not, but the boy with the perfect mechanics now has a bum part, well maybe. I am not a doctor nor do I play one on TV so I cannot begin to understand what this terminology implies, so I really do not know what it means either. Some have opined it to be a good thing, allowing a better arm slot and release point, others have indicated that it is degenerative and may lead to an early departure from the game.
Simply put, Wood cannot stay healthy. He was warned to change his mechanics, but rebelled. He now chooses a bullpen role to put less of a burden on his shoulder and arm. If he has a successful season, will he return to the rotation? It is clear he wants to be a starter, no matter what he says, but will great successes in the latter part of the game convince him to stay put?
Though similar in the ways mentioned, the two had very different inaugural outings yesterday. Wood’s 1-2-3 inning is a glimpse of what he could do in the 7th or 8th if needed, it also speaks to the possibility of him closing. Though this is a good start, I need to see many more of these to have faith. He has had control issues in the past and been the victim of ‘the big inning’ many times. When you only get one inning to pitch, a big inning will clinch the game for the wrong side.
I will not read too much into Prior’s debut. I was aware that his velocity was down and am not surprised about his control issues. When healthy last year, he missed high countless times. I just hope a month of practice is what he needs. It is more important to pitch regularly and without pain in Spring Training than it is to win. That is not to say that I will be happy if he is shelled every time, but we need to take baby steps at this juncture. If he pitches again in 3-5 days, that will be a very good thing. His control will return, most of his velocity should as well, but if the loose shoulder acts up again, the Cubs just may have to shut him down for good.
As for now, a healthy Wood and a healthy Prior both started Spring Training on time and that is a mini-miracle for this organization. We finally stopped saying “If….” and look what happened. I am definitely jumping the gun on this one, but after yesterday’s performance, it seems possible that the two pitchers may be part of the equation, but if not, there is always next year.
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Stay Classy Cubs Fans!!!