With the wind blowing in at 15 m.p.h. and perennially rebuilding Pittsburgh in town, everything was in place for Mark Prior to dominate Thursday as the Cubs opened their second-half schedule.
Prior did the expected, pitching the Cubs to a 5-1 victory over the Pirates and moving them back to the .500 mark once again.
"That's how you get back in the race and reel off a bunch of games," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "When your starting pitching is good, everything else is good."
Todd Walker hit a two-run homer and catcher Henry Blanco, who changed his number from 9 to 24 before the game, drove in two runs and had a pair of doubles. But it was Prior who stole the show in eight innings of one-run, two-hit ball.
"If we get the game like we did [Thursday], we'll dominate, no doubt about it," Walker said. "That's the keyto get the pitchers to go out and do what Mark Prior did. He's perfectly capable of doing that every time outso are [Kerry] Wood, [Carlos] Zambrano and [Greg] Maddux."
After Prior bombed in his last outing against Atlanta, lasting only 42/3 innings and giving up six runs, he struck out 10 in a 115-pitch outing, his 18th career double-digit strikeout game.
With the victory, Prior improved to 6-3 for the season and 6-0 against the Pirates in 10 career starts.
Now the Cubs have to follow Prior's lead if they hope to get back into the thick of the wild-card playoff hunt.
"I always find myself theorizing on what we need to do and what we don't need to do," Prior said. "We just have to play."
On an unusual midsummer day when the wind blew in instead of out, the Cubs managed to use the elements to perfection.
Trailing 1-0 in the third, Walker lined a two-run shot off Mark Redman that barely cleared the right-field wall.
Blanco added a two-run double in the fourth and Prior capped off the scoring with his first RBI on a single to left.
The Cubs now have won four straight following a season-high, eight-game losing streak. In those four games, Prior, Wood, Zambrano and Maddux combined to allow six runs on 18 hits in 311/3 innings.
Prior has a 2.69 earned-run average with Blanco behind the plate, as opposed to 4.68 when Michael Barrett is the catcher. As long as Prior continues to excel with Blanco, Baker figures to keep the tandem together.
"I'm proud to catch all those guys," Blanco said.
Prior implied he has nothing to do with the pairing of him and Blanco. Last year he posted superior numbers down the stretch with backup Paul Bako as his catcher.
"I show up every day, find out who the catcher is and we go to work and come up with a game plan," Prior said. "We try to stick to it. Sometimes we make adjustments. Henry did a great job behind the plate [Thursday]. He came in there and settled me down, especially in the second, third and fourth innings when I was kind of dragging a little bit and didn't get much of a chance at a break.
"Michael and Henry work well together. It's not just the guy behind the plate that day. We're always talking. It's a group effort."
The weight of the Cubs season may rest on the shoulders of Prior and Wood, just as it did when they returned from injuries last summer. Great expectations are nothing new.
"It's an honor," Prior said. "But at the same time, I know what I can do, and I know the pressure I put on myself to go out there and perform."
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