Tom Verducci's View

May 30, 2004

ACE IN THE HOLE

Everyone in the Cubs' organization breathed a little easier last
Thursday after ace Mark Prior (left) made a long awaited return
to the mound and pitched three hitless innings in a rehab start
for Class A Lansing (Mich.). Assuming that he has no setbacks,
the 23-year-old righthander, who went 18-6 and last season has
been on the disabled list since March 26 with injuries to his
right Achilles' tendon and right elbow, should return to the
majors on June 4.

"The discomfort was actually behind the elbow," said Prior's
agent, John Boggs. "It was never anything associated with
pitching injuries, such as the ligaments and tendons. He's on the
right track."

The Cubs weathered the first quarter of the season magnificently
without their ace, not to mention recent injuries to righthander
Kerry Wood (right triceps strain), rightfielder Sammy Sosa
(sprained ligament in his lower back) and shortstop Alex Gonzalez
(fractured bone in his right wrist). At week's end Chicago was on
pace to win 94 games with a Prior-less staff that had the
third-lowest ERA (3.62) in the majors, behind only the Red Sox
and the Phillies. Now Prior will be fresher in the second half
(and possibly the postseason) than he otherwise would have been
if he hadn't begun the season on the disabled list.

MEET HIM IN ST. LOUIS

Brad Thompson (right) never looked like a can't-miss prospect.
The 22-year-old righthander, who is with the Double A Tennessee
Smokies in the Cardinals' organization, was undrafted out of high
school, went to Dixie State, a junior college in St. George,
Utah, was drafted in the 16th round by St. Louis in 2002, does
not throw especially hard (89 to 91 mph) and does not intimidate
people with his mound presence. "He looks like Opie Taylor," said
Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty. "He's a baby-faced kid."

Thompson, though, has one very nasty pitch--a darting, sinking
fastball. With a 7-0 record and a 0.18 ERA through Sunday,
Thompson, who had a streak of 57 2/3 consecutive scoreless
innings snapped on May 19, has become one of St. Louis's top
prospects. The Cardinals intend to promote him to Triple A very
soon.

TAKING IT TO THE BANK

Before the season Phillies manager Larry Bowa (left) said, "We're
pretty much going to live and die with home runs." Thanks in part
to new Citizens Bank Park, the club is alive and well.
Philadelphia had 38 homers in its first 20 games at home with 20
in 22 games on the road. The ball jumps particularly well in the
new stadium's short power alleys (369 in both left center and
right center), which have drawn comparisons to the
hitter-friendly alleys at Camden Yards in Baltimore.

THREE STRIKES

1. Though the Yankees had been outscored by the Tigers one
quarter of the way through the season, New York's lineup commands
respect. With 194 walks through Sunday, the Yanks were on pace to
threaten the 72-year-old franchise record for bases on balls
(766). And with a pitching staff that had issued the fewest walks
in the AL (113), New York was on track to draw 305 more bases on
balls than it would yield to opponents (731-426).

2. Most hitters need to keep swinging to maintain their stroke,
which can lead to their chasing bad pitches. Here are the best
hitters who can take many pitches yet still put a good swing on a
pitch they like: Barry Bonds, Chipper Jones, Edgar Martinez and
Mike Piazza (right).

3. The Indians' brutal bullpen earned just four saves in their
first 42 games, keeping it slightly ahead of the pace of the
record season low of 11 by the 1979 Blue Jays.

COLOR PHOTO: AL GOLDIS/AP (PRIOR) COLOR PHOTO: WADE PAYNE/ICON SMI (THOMPSON) COLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN (BOWA) COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON (PIAZZA)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)