On comeback trail, Prior sets sights on Fenway

On comeback trail, Prior sets sights on Fenway

On comeback trail, Prior sets sights on Fenway
PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- Mark Prior won't accompany the Red Sox on Friday when they visit Wrigley Field and the Cubs to face his former team, but the right-hander is just glad to be back in the game at all.

Once a promising star with the Cubs, Prior is on the comeback trail in the Red Sox's farm system. The right-hander has made four appearances with Triple-A Pawtucket since his debut on June 2 and has his mind set on a return to the Majors.

Of course, Prior hasn't pitched in a big league game in nearly six years. His last outing with the Cubs was Aug. 10, 2006, and after a slew of shoulder injuries and numerous surgeries, Prior is finally back on the mound.

"It feels nice to be back around the guys and playing again, and with all the fun stuff that goes with it," he said.

He's shown flashes of the electrifying prospect he once was, striking out 13 in 5 2/3 innings with the PawSox. Prior has allowed just three hits and walked two.

"Everything feels good," he said. "I've been throwing now for almost two months down in Florida and then up here. I'm just having fun working on my craft and trying to get to the next level to help the parent team win ballgames."

Prior broke into the Majors in 2002 as a 21-year-old rookie with Chicago and had at least 10 strikeouts in three of his first five starts. He finished the season with 147 strikeouts in 116 2/3 innings.

He was even better in 2003 with 245 strikeouts and 18 wins. The only year Prior failed to record more strikeouts than innings pitched was an injury-shortened season in '06, when he was diagnosed with shoulder tendinitis.

A career that began with so much promise and success quickly dissipated as Prior's shoulder injuries mounted and he spent more time in the training room than on the mound. He had shoulder surgery prior to the 2007 season and hasn't played in the Majors since.

"The first year I had the surgery, I was gung-ho about it," Prior said. "I had been pitching hurt for a year-and-a-half, trying to just grind through some things to not much success and it was frustrating. For me, I was in a bad state of mind, kind of bitter, but after the surgery, I thought I was ready to move on. But unfortunately, 12 months later I tore it again and then 12 months later I tore it again."

With so many setbacks along the way, Prior nearly gave up on the game entirely. He's glad he didn't.

"There were times where it was frustrating and there were times where I wanted to walk away and just say, 'You know what? It's not meant to be,' but I felt like every time I got close to that point there was something in the back of my head that if I did walk away I was going to turn around five years later and regret it," said Prior, who is 42-29 with a 3.51 ERA in 106 big league starts. "I learned a lot about myself and the people who support me. A lot of people wanted me to pitch again and I owe a lot to them."

Now, Prior is working his way through the Minor Leagues again, just like he did in 2001, when the Cubs made him the No. 2 overall pick in the First-Year Player Draft.

Prior isn't bitter about what happened to his career and says he's enjoying going through the process with the rest of Boston's top prospects in Pawtucket.

"Sometimes at the Triple-A level you can get bogged down by the transition of going back and forth, but guys here seem to have a lot of fun, which is always key to looking forward to coming to the ballpark every day," Prior said. "Triple-A ball is one of the toughest leagues with the talent and travel. It's good to be around guys that enjoy each other's company."

Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine never managed against Prior in the National League, but he's watched Prior from afar with Chicago and now Pawtucket.

"I remember watching him when he was first with the Cubs," Valentine said. "I've heard about the gun readings and the arm speed. It sounds like he's pretty good, but I haven't seen it [in person]."

Paul Schreiber holds the record for the longest gap between appearances in the Majors at 22 years. While Prior isn't close to breaking that mark, he's inching closer toward his Sox debut.

Prior never pitched at Fenway Park, and the closest he's come is Jet Blue Park in Fort Myers, Fla. The lure of Fenway, though, is never far from the pitcher's mind.

"It reminds me a lot of Wrigley Field with the fans right on top of you," Prior said. "It's exciting to be in a park like that. It will be fun. Hopefully I get that opportunity."

Austin Laymance is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.