PAWTUCKET, R.I. - Mark Prior says he never dwells on the difficult path his injury-plagued baseball career has taken him.
The 31-year-old righthander, who two years ago was pitching in the deepest recesses of the bushes for the independent Orange County (Calif.) Flyers, has always tried to remain in the present.
After all, when trying to resurrect your major league career, as Prior is attempting to do with the Red Sox, it helps to block out the peripheral noise and distractions. It helps to maintain a single-minded focus on the next opportunity, the next game, the next out, the next pitch.
“It’s a lot easier that way,’’ said Prior, who compiled a 42-29 record and 3.51 earned run average in five seasons as a starter for the Chicago Cubs (2002-06) before right shoulder, right elbow, hamstring, and Achilles’ tendon injuries derailed his career during his prime. “You just worry about doing your job and let the chips fall.’’
After the Red Sox signed him to a minor league contract May 2, Prior found himself with an opportunity to prove he was more than just a redemptive feel-good story in the making.
“Everybody who loves playing the game is going to hold on because you can’t replace this,’’ said Prior.
“You can’t replace the adrenaline rush and the competitive environment that you get out there, no matter what level you’re at. It’s something you can’t all of a sudden wake up at [age] 45 and say, ‘Hey, I want to go play this game.’ It’s no one foot out, one foot in type of thing. It’s all or nothing. I’m going to go all or nothing until either I can’t physically do it or somebody tells me they don’t need my services anymore.’’
All and nothing
Prior faced an all-or-nothing scenario in Triple A Pawtucket’s 4-1 victory over the Gwinnett Braves last Tuesday night at McCoy Stadium.
In a steady mist that turned into light rain, Prior was summoned in the eighth inning to protect a 3-1 lead. It was his fourth appearance for Pawtucket after a month of extended spring training in Fort Myers, Fla.
Prior loaded the bases without the ball being put in play. He hit the first batter, who stole second. He struck out the second batter, but walked the next one while throwing a wild pitch that advanced the runner to third. Another strikeout was followed by another walk.
Prior then fell behind, 3 and 0, to Gwinnett’s speedy center fielder, Luis Durango.
“Throw some strikes!’’ a frustrated PawSox fan bellowed after Prior’s 90-mile-per-hour fastball missed outside for ball two.
Prior refused to give in to Durango. He dialed up 92- and 93-m.p.h. fastballs for strikes that ran the count full.
Durango stepped out of the batter’s box and grabbed some dirt in an attempt to disrupt Prior’s rhythm. Prior did not flinch. He waited for Durango to step back into the box and unwound his lanky, 6-foot-5-inch frame for a 91-m.p.h. fastball that jammed the lefthanded batter for a called third strike.
“Just rolled the dice there at the end and whatever happened, happened,’’ said Prior, who in six appearances has thrown eight innings of relief, walking five and fanning 19 while giving up two runs. “It’s not the way you want to draw it up, that’s for sure.’’
The same could be said of Prior’s star-crossed career.
“It doesn’t matter how good you are, you’re going to take your lumps in this game,’’ said Prior. “That’s just the reality of the game. It’s a humbling game.
“The more you play, the more experiences you get - whether you’re 21, 31, or 41 - you’re always learning and you’re always making adjustments. It’s just being able to apply what you’ve learned, sooner rather than later, and hopefully using it to your advantage.’’
“He’s a veteran guy who knows how to pitch, knows how to work, and knows how to get guys out,’’ said Pawtucket manager Arnie Beyeler. “But you can’t teach the stuff. For a guy who’s been injured and tried to stay healthy, he’s got a good bite on his fastball and he knows how to locate and his slider is getting sharper every time out.’’
Prior signed with the Cubs in 2001 after they drafted him second overall out of Southern California, where as a junior he earned All-America and Player of the Year honors after compiling a 15-1 record and 1.69 ERA, throwing six complete games and three shutouts.
He rapidly ascended through the minors and made his major league debut May 22, 2002 against the Pirates, allowing a pair of runs on four hits over six innings, along with two walks and 10 strikeouts in earning the victory.
But his rookie season was truncated by injury after tweaking his left hamstring running the bases in an Aug. 31 loss to the Cardinals.
It was Prior’s first visit to the DL, and certainly not his last.
Even his best season was pockmarked by injury. Prior went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA in 2003, making 30 starts and striking out 245 over 211 1/3 innings. He was named to the National League All-Star team but was unable to pitch because of a right shoulder injury.
After returning in August, Prior won seven straight decisions and 10 of his final 11, helping the Cubs to their first division title in 14 years. He went 2-1 in the postseason - the loss coming in the infamous “Bartman Game’’ when Prior was working on a three-hit shutout in the eighth inning before the Marlins rallied to win Game 6 of the NLCS.
Prior started the next three seasons on the DL with various injuries and his production declined. In 2006 he didn’t pitch until midseason and made only nine starts before he was shut down.
After signing a one-year contract with the Cubs Feb. 15, 2007, Prior underwent right shoulder surgery in April, forcing him to miss the season.
He signed with the Padres in 2008 and began the season on the DL with a right shoulder strain, which later required a season-ending operation.
“For me, I never really was able to get back from the first surgery,’’ Prior said. “It was a process with my shoulder that took, unfortunately, nearly three years to kind of iron itself out. That was the way I had to work my way back into the game - and I had no problem doing that.
“I felt like, for me, it was something I didn’t want to look back in five years or six years and regret not giving it a shot. There were some doubts and question marks. Obviously, there are always going to be question marks about my health; I understand that.
“But, you know, there was also question marks about whether I could still get people out.’’
Road to recovery
After missing the 2009 season and the beginning of the 2010 season while rehabbing his shoulder, Prior wondered if he was still capable of getting batters out. He wondered if he could make it out of independent ball and back to the big leagues.
“In any case where a guy has injuries that horrific, there’s always going to be the question, ‘Are we taking a chance?’ ’’ said Pawtucket pitching coach Rich Sauveur. “There’s always going to be a chance taken on any injury, actually.
“He’s still 31 years old, which to me is not too old. But any chance you take, there could be a tremendous upside, there could be a letdown.
“But from what I’ve seen right here, he’s way more than what I expected when they told me they had signed him and sent him down to Fort Myers. If he can keep doing what he’s doing and show that he’s healthy, he can pitch in the big leagues again.’’
It wasn’t until Prior spent last season with the Yankees organization, appearing in 11 games over three levels and compiling a 2.25 ERA, that he seemed to convince himself a comeback was a real possibility. But that’s not to say he didn’t have doubts.
“Oh, yeah, absolutely,’’ Prior said. “I mean, by no means am I back. There were times when I was close to saying enough is enough.’’
It’s been six years since Prior last appeared in a major league game. If he were to make it back with the Red Sox, it would likely be as a middle reliever in a crowded bullpen.
“It would be awesome, that’s where I want to be,’’ Prior said. “But I also understand that things happen fast and it could go south. To me, it’s about taking it day by day.
“I really don’t focus on what could happen down the line and what it might mean or what it won’t mean because, to be honest, if it does happen I’ll be more worried about what I have to do and what my job is and not if this is a cool story or what this does mean.
“Those are all things you can worry about after the season is over or worry about after your career is done. That’s when you put things in perspective. For me, it’s go and pitch today and get guys out.’’