Mark Prior and The Heartbreak Club

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There were two eye-opening bits of news here in this story about Mark Prior retiring.

1. I honestly thought he retired five years ago.

2. Mark Prior is still only 33 years old.

The second of those bits is even more shocking than the first. He is STILL only 33? If Mark Prior had stayed healthy, he would only now be signing a seven-year, $190 million deal with the Mariners or somebody. Baseball can be an extremely cruel game.

Prior probably should have won the Cy Young Award in 2003, when he was just 22 years old. The award went to Eric Gagne because it was one of those periodic years when the voters fall in love with relief pitching all over again. Gagne had a superb year for a closer … but not markedly different from John Smoltz that same year, Trevor Hoffman in 1998 or Craig Kimbrel and Greg Holland this year. Prior pitched more than twice as many innings and was significantly more valuable.

Anyway, people had to figure Prior would win plenty of Cy Young Awards. Here are the greatest pitching performances since World War II for pitchers 22 or younger:

1. Dwight Gooden, 1985, 24-4, 1.53 ERA, league-leading 276 Ks.
2. Bert Blyleven, 1973, 20-17, 9 shutouts, 325 innings pitched.
3. Mark Fidrych, 1976, 19-9, league leading 2.34 ERA, 24 complete games.
4. Vida Blue, 1971, 24-8, league-leading 1.82 ERA, 301 strikeouts, Cy and MVP winner.
5. Larry Dierker, 1969, 20-13, 2.33 ERA, 305 innings, 20 complete games.
6. Sudden Sam McDowell, 1965, 17-11, league-leading 2.18 ERA, 325 strikeouts.
7. Mark Prior, 2003, 18-6, 2.43 ERA, 245 strikeouts.
8. Frank Tanana, 1975, 16-9, 2.62 ERA, league-leading 269 strikeouts.
9. Bret Saberhagen, 1985, 20-6, 2.87 ERA, Cy Young winner.
10. Frank Tanana, 1976, 19-10, 2.43 ERA, 261 strikeouts.

Of this list, only Blyleven went on to a Hall of Fame career. Tanana, who is on the list twice, blew out his arm and reinvented himself as a soft-tossing lefty. Dwight Gooden, Sam McDowell and Vida Blue all dealt with various demons and fell a few steps short of greatness. Larry Dierker had an up and down career, and Bret Saberhagen was alternately brilliant and injured.

Then, Mark Fidrych and Mark Prior belong to the same club, the heartbreak club. They each had one glorious year in the Major Leagues. Their bodies would not hold up for another. Fidrych felt his arm go dead in the middle of the next season. Prior had trouble with his achilles tendon the next year — people would always suspect it was his elbow and the Cubs just didn’t want to admit it. In 2005 he was pitching quite well and he got hit by a batted ball that smashed his elbow. In 2006 the Cubs announced that he had a “loose shoulder,” which does not seem like a medical term but Mark Prior was never even a decent Major League pitcher again.

Lots of people blame overwork for the fall of both Fidrych and Prior, and that does make some sense. Fidrych in particular was abused — from May 15 to August 29 that year he made 22 starts and pitched 198 innings. Quick math will tell you, he AVERAGED nine innings for those 22 starts. This is in part because he pitched 11 innings four times during the stretch and 10 innings once. It was pretty close to criminal.

Prior’s overuse was not nearly as pronounced, but people did notice even at the time that Dusty Baker was having Prior (and fellow phenom Kerry Wood) throw a lot of pitches. In September of 2003, during the pennant run, Prior threw 131, 129, 109, 124, 131 and 133 pitches in his six starts. It’s interesting: None of those were complete games. Even now, there is much disagreement about pitch counts and how best to protect young pitcher’s arms and so on. I guess the infuriating part with the Cubs was that there seemed no visible effort whatsoever to protect Prior’s arm. Maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference, but you sort of wished they would have at least made a show of it.

When Prior was young and right, he was all but unhittable. He had a fastball he could pump up into the high 90s and his better pitch was a curveball that was like setting the phaser to stun. His curve would just leave Major League hitters frozen — sometimes it seemed like they were still standing at the plate long after Prior had reached the dugout. He walked just 50 batters in his amazing season.

His effort to come back has been both touching and sad. Anyone can understand: He was destined to become one of the best pitchers in baseball history, and he had it taken away from him, and he had trouble accepting it. From Tennessee to Iowa, from Orange County to Oklahoma City, from Tampa to Scranton to Pawtucket to Louisville he chased ghosts, hoping against hope for some part of himself to return. I imagine that at times he snapped off the old curveball or fired a fastball that hopped a bit, and he found himself believing that he would come all the way back. Then there would be more pain.

The Chicago Tribune on Tuesday had a three paragraph note acknowledging Prior’s official retirement. The first few words were “Former Cubs Phenom Mark Prior.” And sadly, those are the last words too.

And That Happened: Wednesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Nationals 5, Mariners 1: Anthony Rendon hit a three-run homer. He hit two homers and drove in five on Tuesday. Guess you can say he likes playing the Mariners. Then again, everyone should like playing the Mariners these days. They’ve lost five in a row and have been outscored 41-5 in that span.

Athletics 4, Marlins 1: Sonny Gray struck out 11 batters over seven one-run innings. Gray has only pitched five times this year but so far the results are pretty good, pointing to the sort of bounceback season the A’s were hoping for from their potential ace. He’s got a K/BB ratio of 28/8 in 29.2 innings, a WHIP of 1.08 and is holding batters to a .216 average.

Twins 4, Orioles 3: The Twins swept the O’s in Baltimore — the first team to even win a series there this season — but what I would really like to do is I to show you a couple of pitches Jose Berrios threw yesterday afternoon:

And this:

That game started at 1pm. I know the studies are inconclusive — and it may make me sound old fashioned — but I think it’s wrong to show this sort of pornography when children were awake and could have easily stumbled upon them. Please, Paul Molitor, only allow Jose Berrios to pitch after dark.

Reds 4, Indians 3: Speaking of pornography, check out Billy Hamilton‘s speed. He beats out what would’ve been a game-ending double play if anyone else on the planet was running and then he scored from first base on a single (and outfield miscue by Michael Brantley) to help the Reds come back from a 3-2 deficit in the ninth inning to win the game:

That Brantley brain lock aside, I don’t think many other runners score on that play. Hamilton’s wheels won that dang game for Cincinnati.

Rockies 7, Phillies 2: Tyler Chatwood allowed one hit in seven scoreless innings and struck out eight as the Rockies continue to impress. They scored seven runs in the third, hitting, collectively, for the cycle in the inning. Carlos Gonzalez hit the homer, Ian Desmond hit the triple, Trevor Story hit the double and Charlie Blackmon, DJ LeMahieu and Nolan Arenado all singled. Fox executives are gonna jump outta windows when they see the ratings for this year’s Rockies-Twins World Series, but it’ll be totally dope for most of us if it happens.

Blue Jays 8, Brewers 4: Ryan Goins is gonna lose his job to Troy Tulowitzki soon, but he’s not letting that bother him. He hit a grand slam here and Kevin Pillar, Devon Travis and Jose Bautista went deep as well.

This has nothing to do with anything, but I want you to know that in the course of putting these recaps together I came across this ad at the bottom of a web page:

Given that he’s been dead for 11 years I’d say it’s understandable that fans were stunned regardless of the reason he left the show. And that’s the case even if the shuffling, decomposing corpse of Don Knotts were merely citing something boring like creative differences with Desilu Studios or a desire to more movies.

Working on the Internet is so cool. OK, back to the recaps:

Yankees 3, Royals 0: Luis Severino‘s year of fulfilling his potential continues as he allowed four hits over eight innings, striking out seven. The 23-year old is looking better than he did in his rookie year and way better than he did in 2016. On the bad side of things, Jacoby Ellsbury slammed into the wall while making a catch in the first inning and left with a concussion and sprained neck. It’s the second time this season he’s face-planted like that.

Diamondbacks 8, White Sox 6: The sweep. The Dbacks have won 8 of 9 and are ten games over .500 for the first time in six years. Five different Arizona batters drove in a run. Jose Abreu was 4-for-5 with a homer and three RBI in a losing cause.

Red Sox 9, Rangers 4: The Sox were down 3-1 in the bottom of the seventh but then they put up a seven-spot. Chris Sale struck out only six batters, snapping his streak with double digit strikeouts at eight, but I’m sure he’s cool with it.

Padres 6, Mets 5: Mets blew a 5-1 lead but had a chance to tie or win it in the ninth only to be smacked down by Brad Hand. New York loaded the bases with nobody out, but Hand struck out Curtis Granderson and Rene Rivera and then Juan Lagares flied out to end it. Losing a lead and seeing a would-be rally fizzle like that are demoralizing enough, but having them both happen in the same game is a real kick to the beans.

Pirates 12, Braves 5: Speaking of demoralizing: the Braves — whose bullpen has been pretty fantastic lately — had a 5-3 lead in the ninth inning only to see Jose Ramirez cough it up by surrendering a two-out, bases loaded single to Jose Osuna. The tenth inning was way worse, when Josh Collmenter came on for Atlanta and decided it’d be more fun to spread kerosene all over the place than to get dudes out. Collmenter allowed six hits — three of them homers — and seven runs in the final frame. The 10th inning dongs came back-to-back-to-back in the space of ten pitches. The men doing the yard work for Pittsburgh: David Freese, Osuna and Jordy Mercer

Rays 5, Angels 2: Steven Souza homered twice. Too bad he did it in May. Two months earlier and we could call him “The March King.”

Cubs 5, Giants 4: Anthony Rizzo homered twice and Kyle Hendricks allowed two runs over seven. Wade Davis allowed two runs over one, via a homer to Mac Williamson, but he got the save anyway.

Tigers 6, Astros 3Jose Iglesias finished a triple shy of the cycle — which is not a thing, even if it’s fun to say — and Ian Kinsler had two hits and scored twice. The Tigers snapped a three game skid.

Cardinals 6, Dodgers 1: Mike Leake allowed four hits over eight one run innings. His ERA is now down to 1.91 on the year. Yadi Molina homered and drove in two. Someone let me know if this game was more interesting to Bill Plaschke than Tuesday night’s game, which he found boring despite the fact that it featured a nine-inning pitcher’s duel featuring an all-time great and ended on a walkoff hit by the home team. As this one only took two hours and 44 minutes, I presume it was more pleasing to him.

Baseball writers, man. They’re the worst.

Albert Pujols hit his 597th career home run

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Angels DH Albert Pujols smacked his 597th career home run, a two-run shot in the top of the first inning during Wednesday night’s 5-2 loss to the Rays. The blast was off of Erasmo Ramirez and marked No. 6 on the season for the future Hall of Famer.

Pujols finished 1-for-3 with the homer and a walk. After Wednesday’s game, he’s hitting a lackluster .244/.296/.378 with 34 RBI and 14 runs scored in 186 trips to the plate.

Pujols currently ranks ninth on baseball’s all-time leaderboard and is three shy of joining the 600-homer club. He’s currently 13 home runs away from tying Sammy Sosa for eighth all-time.