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Mark of excellence

In the bottom of the sixth inning Wednesday night, the standing-room-only crowd at Wrigley Field demanded to be heard.

They began booing as soon as they saw pinch-hitter Chris Stynes stroll from the on-deck circle to the batter's box.

Were they booing Stynes, whose groundout dropped him to 3-for-33 at Wrigley this season? Or were they booing Cubs manager Don Baylor's decision to pull Mark Prior after six innings?

Probably a little of both.

Prior was as good as advertised in the Cubs' 7-4 victory over the Pirates. On a night in which he acknowledged fighting nerves for much of the game, he still managed to strike out 10 Pirates and walk just two.

Prior's 10 strikeouts were the most for a Cubs pitcher in a major-league debut since at least 1969. Juan Cruz struck out eight in his debut last August.

"My location wasn't too bad," Prior said. "And Joe [Girardi] called a great game back there. He knows these hitters a lot better than I ever will."

What Prior knows is how to pitch—and how to control his insides.

"I don't think I showed too much emotion as far as being nervous," Prior said. "I harnessed it pretty well."

Prior missed with his first pitch, an inside fastball to Chad Hermansen. After Hermansen reached on a single up the middle and Jack Wilson sacrificed, Prior struck out Brian Giles and Aramis Ramirez to end the inning.

The Cubs gave him a solid cushion in the bottom of the inning. After the Pirates intentionally walked Sammy Sosa, Fred McGriff lined a one-out double down the right-field line for two runs.

McGriff has thrived on the heels of intentional walks to Sosa. He's 4-for-5 in those situations with two doubles, a triple, two walks, a sacrifice fly and eight RBIs.

Prior said the early lead settled him down.

"It was key," he said. "It gave me confidence."

The only thing Prior didn't do well Wednesday was hit. He couldn't carry the momentum from hitting three homers in 19 minor-league at-bats.

Baylor even adjusted his strategy to try to take advantage of Prior's bat. After Bobby Hill reached on a fourth-inning error and stole second, Baylor had No. 8 hitter Augie Ojeda lay down a sacrifice bunt.

But Prior could not drive a grounder past Pittsburgh's drawn-in infield.

Girardi, the ninth No. 2 hitter Baylor has used this season, helped make up for it by going 2-for-5 with an RBI double.

The 21-year-old right-hander also did his part. The only runs Prior allowed came on Pokey Reese's opposite-field single and Brian Giles' wind-aided home run.

"He found out that the hitting is a lot different here than in the minor leagues," Baylor said. "And he made the adjustment."

Prior also adjusted to the large following that watched his every move.

When he walked out on the field Wednesday, he was greeted by a crowd of about 40 reporters.

Upon seeing the masses, a stunned Bill Mueller said, "It's scary."

But Prior had no fear. On the eve of the game, he had talked about his desire to have fun on the mound.

"This is such a business that you can almost start losing perspective," Prior's agent, John Boggs, said after watching Prior hit three balls onto Waveland Avenue during batting practice. "Sometimes players don't enjoy the moment until after the fact. But Mark has the capability of enjoying it during and after it happens."

Prior surely enjoyed this one, right down to the moment former phenom Kerry Wood showered him with an unnamed beverage.

"The whole thing was kind of surreal," Prior said. "It was definitely an experience I'll never forget."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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