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Mark Prior and The Heartbreak Club


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.

NLDS, Game 2: Cubs vs. Cardinals lineups

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Jaime Garcia throws in the first inning of a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
AP Photo/John Minchillo
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Here are the Cubs and Cardinals lineups for Game 2 of the NLDS. First pitch is scheduled for 5:37 p.m. ET in St. Louis:

CF Dexter Fowler
RF Jorge Soler
3B Kris Bryant
1B Anthony Rizzo
2B Starlin Castro
LF Austin Jackson
C Miguel Montero
SP Kyle Hendricks
SS Addison Russell

Cubs manager Joe Maddon has made a number of changes with a left-hander on the mound for St. Louis. Jorge Soler will start in right field and bat second base while Kyle Schwarber is on the bench. Meanwhile, Austin Jackson will start over Chris Coghlan in left field. Miguel Montero is behind the plate after David Ross caught Jon Lester in Game 1 on Friday. Finally, Kyle Hendricks will bat eighth while Addison Russell will hit ninth, which he did often during the regular season.

3B Matt Carpenter
RF Stephen Piscotty
LF Matt Holliday
CF Jason Heyward
SS Jhonny Peralta
1B Brandon Moss
C Yadier Molina
2B Kolten Wong
SP Jaime Garcia

The Cardinals’ lineup isn’t much different from Game 1 against left-hander Jon Lester, but there is one notable change with a right-hander on the mound. Randal Grichuk is out while Brandon Moss is in. Stephen Piscotty played first base in Game 1, but he’ll be in right field this afternoon. This means that Moss will start at first base. Yadier Molina reported no issues with his thumb in Game 1 and is right back in there to catch Garcia.

Daniel Murphy’s home run ball vs. Clayton Kershaw had his name imprinted on it

New York Mets' Daniel Murphy celebrates a solo home run as Los Angeles Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis looks down during the fourth inning in Game 1 of baseball's National League Division Series, Friday, Oct. 9, 2015 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
AP Photo/Gregory Bull
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We often hear that someone “tattooed” a baseball. Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy took that literally with his home run against Clayton Kershaw last night.

According to Statcast, Murphy’s fourth-inning solo blast against Kershaw left the bat at 104.9 mph and traveled an estimated distance of 415 feet. He actually hit the ball so hard that his name ended up being imprinted on it from his bat. No joke. Check it out below…

Here’s the video of the home run:

Tigers GM Al Avila confirms that his son likely won’t be back next year

Detroit Tigers' Alex Avila, right, is congratulated by third base coach Dave Clark after his solo home run in the third inning in the second game of a baseball doubleheader against the Chicago White Sox, Monday, Sept. 21, 2015, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

After seven seasons in Detroit, impending free agent catcher Alex Avila will likely be playing elsewhere next season. Avila’s father, Tigers general manager Al Avila, confirmed as much in his comments to the media Thursday.

Here’s a quote from Chris Iott of

“I don’t really see it as a priority,” Al Avila said Thursday during a season-ending meeting with media members. “Right now, (James) McCann is our starting catcher and (Bryan) Holaday is coming back but is out of options. Basically, Holaday has to be our backup catcher or he’s out of options.”

Avila has had a heck of a run in Detroit, including an All-Star appearance in 2011, but this is a business and it’s logical why the Tigers are moving on. The 28-year-old dealt with knee problems this season while batting just .191 with four home runs and a .626 OPS in 219 plate appearances. He actually had more walks (40) than he did hits (34) while falling into a backup role.

With McCann now at the top of the depth chart and Holaday as his projected backup, Avila believes that his son will likely find an opportunity on the open market “that might be more beneficial to him.”