Prior went 6 2/3 innings, notching 10 strikeouts (including four in a row to open the game) and allowing just an unearned run on four hits. His fastball topped out at 92 mph and he threw 90 pitches (his pre-set pitch count), 63 of which went for strikes.
In his first inning, Prior threw 15 pitches, 11 for strikes. He left to a standing ovation after retiring the first two batters he saw in the seventh inning.
“It went pretty well,” Prior told reporters after exiting. “I threw the ball well in the strike zone. For the most part, I threw the ball where I wanted to and did the things that I wanted to do. I didn’t miss and when I did, I missed in the general area that I wanted to miss. I felt like I went after guys and tried to pick up some weaknesses as quick as I could and exploit them.
Iowa manager Mike Quade was not only impressed with Prior’s performance, but also the effect left on his team of prospects.
“He competes. That at-bat with the bases loaded just shows that,” the Triple-A skipper said, referring to Prior’s third at-bat of the night, which came with two outs in the seventh inning and his team down 1-0 and looking for runs.
“He needed to go out in the seventh, but it wasn’t a sellout at-bat. He’s trying to contribute and came in here wanting to know about the opposing hitters. He goes about things the right way and you can’t help but see the kind of example he’s setting for the kids here. He was marvelous.”
Prior first emerged from the visitor’s clubhouse roughly 15 minutes prior to the first pitch and made his warmup tosses in left field before moving into the bullpen alongside a slew of area Cub fans in attendance. He displayed good command of all of his pitches, notably his fastball and breaking ball.
He struck out Bernie Castro on an inside fastball to open the game before getting Henry Mateo and Ryan Church to chase breaking balls.
“The goal going in today was to try to step it up a little intensity-wise,” Prior said. “And more importantly, to come out healthy and feeling good about the way I threw the ball. I think those two things I accomplished.
“I won’t know where I’m at for another day or two and then we’ll see how I respond,” he added later.
The general consensus would seem to be that Prior is now ready to return to the big league club, but the Cubs’ starter quickly reminded reporters that it will all depend on how he feels 24 to 48 hours from now, and what the Cubs themselves think.
“We’ll see where we’re at come Thursday or Friday and then make a determination,” Prior said. “Obviously, the best case scenario would be me pitching for them in the next five to six days.
“Obviously, if I feel good, I’ll tell them that. But they’ll make the call on what they see and what they’ve heard from their reports. It’s their call, but I definitely have some significant input.”
Catcher Geovany Soto was hitless in three at-bats and made two off-key throws to second base while trying to pick off Mateo, but Prior was quick to praise Soto’s game-calling skills and made mention of the 23-year-old’s improvement behind the plate.
“He really got on my butt and made sure I stayed focused on what I needed to do,” Prior said. “He really read the hitters well and has come a long way since I threw to him last year. I have to give a lot of credit to how he called the game and how he set guys up. He did a wonderful job.”
Soto has but one hit in his last 23 at-bats after batting .288 prior to the recent slump. He remains confident that things will turn around.
“I’ve had some flaws in my swing recently,” he said. “It’s nothing to panic about and I know I’m going to fix it. It’s just a matter of time. It’ll quicken again.”
With Michael Barrett likely to begin serving a suspension for punching White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski in a May brawl at U.S. Cellular Field that resulted in four ejections, Soto seems to be the most logical choice for anyone hoping to get a call-up to aid backup Cubs catcher Henry Blanco.
Working with a pitcher of Prior’s status can only help.
“He had great command tonight and was attacking the strike zone,” Soto said. “It was awesome catching him and it was great seeing him going at it again.”
Iowa trailed for most of the night, but finally struck for a run in the eighth inning. Louisiana native Ryan Theriot led off the inning with a double and scored the tying run on a Micah Hoffpauir single to left.
In the ninth, Iowa rallied with two outs when Mike Fontenot drew a walk from Roy Corcoran. Buck Coats, a late-inning substitute that had been in a 2-for-21 skid entering the series, then doubled to right to score Fontenot for the winning run.
“They’d brought in a lefty when Fontenot got on and I knew he had some good stuff,” Coats said of former Cubs hopeful Micah Bowie, who served up the go-ahead hit. “I knew his slider was really good. He threw a lot of pitches and I fouled some off. Luckily, I got the bat on the ball and got a good pitch to hit.”
Coats had reached base in 26 consecutive games to open the season and was among the top hitters in the Cub farm system until just recently. He turned 24 last Friday and has had a rough go of things lately, not the least of which includes the death of his grandfather last month.
“He was a big inspiration to me,” Coats lamented. “He taught me more about life than baseball and never said one thing to me about playing. To him, he didn’t care if I stopped playing or never played again.”
For his part, Quade was just glad to see his team take advantage of their eight hits instead of stranding more runners on base. Iowa left 44 on base in a recent series at Sacramento, which the Cubs skipper freely labeled as “damn frustrating.”
With some much needed rest and a good night’s sleep following a long flight from Des Moines on Monday, frustrations were hard to find in the Cubs’ clubhouse Tuesday.
“We’d been long awaiting some much-needed two out-hits,” Quade said after the victory. “We got two of them tonight, so it was great.”
The Cubs also played in their 27th one-run game of the season and won for the 10th time in those affairs.
“We’re getting accustomed to playing these close games,” Quade said. “I’d prefer to blow a few people out every once in awhile, but in the meantime, you put the premium on all of the little things that we’re trying to teach. You have to execute and play good defense. All of those things help manufacture runs.”
Added Coats, “As a whole, our team has been hitting well. It’s just that sometimes we don’t get the runners in when they get on base. Hopefully things will turn around. We always play good defense and it keeps us in games.”
Michael Wuertz (2-0) closed things out in relief and picked up the win with an inning and two thirds. He struck out three and allowed one hit to six batters faced to lower his ERA to 1.27 in 14 relief appearances with the team.
Billy Traber went six 6 2/3 innings for the Zephyrs, allowing five hits and no runs in a no-decision. Corcoran (1-1) was charged with both Iowa runs in a losing effort.
The Cubs and Zephyrs meet Wednesday for game three of the series in a 12 p.m. start, and there were some noticeable grumblings about the start time of the game in the New Orleans clubhouse due to the usual heat and humidity associated with the area this time of year.
Asked if he was concerned, Quade replied, “Nah, I’d love to have a free night in New Orleans once in awhile and this is as good a place as any to have one. You come out here at 5 o’clock for batting practice and it’s 98 degrees.
“A few years ago, we played a day game in Las Vegas and it was 120 degrees at game time. So that was a little absurd, but I think we’ll handle it here and play really well.”
Temperature at game time Tuesday was listed at 90 degrees, but players and coaches all commented that the heat was less exhaustive than on Monday, when a record-high of 95 swept through New Orleans.
Jae-Kuk Ryu is scheduled to start Wednesday against New Orleans’ Steve Watkins.
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