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Will, belief drive Mark Prior's comeback

June 6, 2012

Pawtucket Red Sox pitcher Mark Prior, who is trying to return to the major leagues for the first time since 2006, struck out five of the seven batters he faced in Tuesday night’s game against the Indianapolis Indians.

The question cut right to the heart of the matter and can only be answered by Mark Prior himself.
Why keep revisiting what has been a torturous comeback trail in the same manner where in the past, injuries played a significant part in removing the luster of this onetime pitching star?
Why not come to terms that the last major-league start you made occurred August 10, 2006, take comfort in knowing you gave it your best shot and realize that at age 31, you still have an entire life ahead of you?
Why keep testing the limits of your body, which has been poked and prodded in so many places that if the makers of the battery-operated game Operation ever needed a professional baseball player to serve as a spokesperson, you would be the quintessential choice?
Answer: His will and belief, two elements that have managed to steer clear of a surgeon’s scalpel, remain very much intact. If Prior believes that he still possesses the prerequisite characteristics needed in order to succeed at the game’s highest level after everything he’s endured, shouldn’t we accept his spoken word as gospel?
“I still believe I have something left in the tank,” states Prior, his facial expression stoic and serious as he spoke.
If anything, Prior’s presence in a Pawtucket Red Sox uniform suggests that Father Time has not completely caught up with this lanky 6-foot-5, 230-pounder. That’s because Prior simply won’t acquiesce to the idea that he’s a long shot.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re someone in my situation or a young pitcher. It’s all about believing that you have the confidence to get guys out,” said Prior on Wednesday, one day after turning back the clock and delivering a vintage performance that rekindled memories of when he was a 20-something fire blazer with the Chicago Cubs.
Following Daisuke Matsuzaka to the hill, Prior recorded five outs Tuesday night against Indianapolis, all coming via strikeout. His fastball generally resided in the low 90s, a few ticks below from where he threw during his not-so-long-ago heyday with the Cubs. It was his second relief outing with Pawtucket after joining the team last Friday.
“I’m having fun playing right now and hopefully I can get back to where I want to be,” he said.
That place Prior referenced seems like a lifetime ago. His draft status – No. 2 overall pick by Chicago in 2001 – meant big things were expected of him. He delivered on that promise early on, needing all of nine minor-league starts before reaching the Cubs not even a full year after pitching his last game at USC.
By 2003, Prior was on top of the baseball universe, going 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA and 245 strikeouts in 211 1/3 innings. Then came the fall from grace, starting with back-to-back injury-marred campaigns that saw him make a combined 48 starts between 2004-05. His arm, once thought to be bionic and machine-esque, had deteriorated to the point that by the summer of 2006, he was no longer viewed as the savior of Chicago’s pitching staff.
The shoulder strains and subsequent surgeries had taken their toll, robbing Prior of his prime before he even was afforded the chance to experience one. In 2006, he was 25-years-old and staring down the barrel at some pretty long odds, ones that five years later are still very much in play.
Stops with the Padres, Rangers and Yankees over the past few years could be chalked up to nothing more than brief cameos, the attempts to recapture past glory coming after sitting out three consecutive seasons (2007-09). Still, it’s worth noting that despite the unsuccessful re-launches, Prior never once gave up hope.
“I think I have a better understanding of who I am and being honest with myself. I’m not who I was when I was 21 or 23,” Prior said. “Obviously there’s been a lot of ups and downs over the past five years, but there’s been a lot of positive things.”
Non-baseball matters, mind you.
“I’ve gotten the chance to hang out with my family. A lot of players aren’t afforded that chance because they’re constantly on the road,” he stated.
Still, at some point, you want to believe all this isn’t for naught. Prior admits that his latest foray into retracing the steps that made him a desirable commodity has a new aura surrounding it. For one thing, the sight of him taking the mound for the PawSox after spending a month in extended spring training is a telltale sign that for the first time in seemingly forever, he’s moving in the right direction.
“It’s good to be around the guys and pulling for one another, being in an atmosphere like [the one in Pawtucket],” said an appreciative Prior about rejoining the world of the baseball living.
Where does Prior go from here? It’s hard to envision him pitching for the Red Sox at some point this season, but what about a year from now? Could his stay with the PawSox extend through the summer (fingers crossed on that front) and be productive to the point that come next spring, he lands himself a job as a big-league reliever?
Certainly it would be one heck of a narrative if such a scenario comes to fruition. It would also at long last provide a definitive answer to the question that has hovered over Prior since 2006.

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