Absence of Wood, Prior stings Cubs

Absence of Wood, Prior stings in first half

CHICAGO -- It sounds like a broken record, but the Cubs need Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. And they'll go into the second half with just one of those pitchers, and he's a little sore.

By the time the Cubs catch their breath from an exhausting and embarrassing first half, the two pitchers will have combined for eight starts.

In fairness to Wood, he was not expected to be ready by Opening Day. He made his first start on May 18, struggled through three more, then went back on the disabled list to try to strengthen his cranky right shoulder.

On Saturday, the Cubs announced that Wood has a partial tear in his right rotator cuff. He's likely done for the season.

Prior was diagnosed with a strained muscle in his right shoulder in mid-March, and he didn't make his season debut until June 18. He was 0-4 in four starts, a first in his career, and he was scratched from Sunday's game against the Milwaukee Brewers because of a strained left oblique. His status for his first start of the second half is questionable.

First Wood, then Prior, on back-to-back days.

"The goat's starting to look real," Prior said of the fabled curse of the billy goat. "I was starting to feel like I was right where I wanted to be. It keeps piling on."

The Cubs have used 11 starters this season, including five rookies who were a combined 7-16 with a 5.83 ERA in 32 starts. It's the most starts by Cubs rookies since four youngsters, including Prior and Carlos Zambrano, combined for 51 starts in 2002.

The kids were called up because Wood and Prior remained sidelined longer than expected, and because Jerome Williams and Glendon Rusch faltered in the rotation.

You never know what to expect from the kids. Left-hander Sean Marshall went 3 1/3 innings against Florida, giving up seven runs on seven hits and four walks on May 22. In his next start against Atlanta, he was charged with two runs on seven hits and two walks over six innings.

Marshall, Jae Kuk Ryu, Angel Guzman and Carlos Marmol all made their big-league debuts this season, while lefty Rich Hill started four games and was sent back to Triple-A Iowa after going 0-4 with a 9.31 ERA.

The Cubs are double-digits back in the National League Central race at the All-Star break. Would a healthy Wood and Prior have made a difference?

"We're two guys, and obviously they were counting on us to go out and pitch," Prior said. "Can we say that things would be that much better? Who knows? That's one of the tough things about speculating and trying to rationalize things out. You don't really know what would've happened. I think it's safe to say things would've been a little better."

Injuries haven't affected only the pitchers. The Cubs' position would likely have been vastly improved if they didn't lose Derrek Lee for two months. The defending NL batting champ and a two-time Gold Glove Award winner, Lee fractured his right wrist in a freak collision with Rafael Furcal in Los Angeles. When he was hurt on April 19, the Cubs were 9-5 and a half-game back in the Central Division. When he returned to the lineup on June 25, the Cubs were 28-46 and 14 games back.

"You lose Derrek Lee -- who everybody knew was a key part of the team -- and then you find out how big of a part," Prior said. "You find out it's not just his hitting. You find out what his defense is, how much you miss his defense, how much you miss having him in the lineup, having him in the clubhouse. You miss the psychological impact of having him when you're an opposing pitcher -- you think, 'Oh, I've got Derrek Lee in the lineup.' I think that was a huge huge blow to us."

Baker has been on the hot seat since the team lost eight in a row in early May. The Cubs were 7-22 that month. The longest win streak has been three games. For the first time in the franchise's 130-year history, the Cubs served up eight home runs in a game on May 28 against Atlanta, then did it again on June 18 against Detroit.

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Having the giant-sized first baseman sidelined threw the lineup out of whack. Manager Dusty Baker inserted Todd Walker into the No. 3 spot, then Michael Barrett. Aramis Ramirez struggled without Lee batting in front of him.

The Cubs' offense sputtered. They were ranked last in home runs, runs, RBIs, walks and on-base percentage.

"You find yourself again in the position we were in the last couple years where you're putting guys in situations where A, they're not comfortable with, or B, not used to being," Prior said. "Now you find Dusty trying to mix and match, and I don't think he ever found a good mix in his offensive lineup.

"It's not his fault," Prior said of Baker. "He tried guys in certain spots, and people on the outside say, 'What's the difference between hitting eighth, hitting fifth?' There's a big difference. There's a big difference in the way you're pitched to and your responsibilities as a hitter are different."

Things got so bad at the end of May that someone hung a "W" flag near the clubhouse. It didn't help. The series against the Braves May 26-28 provided plenty of bloopers, but the clincher was when Ryan Langerhans' popup hit third baseman Aramis Ramirez on the head, resulting in a two-base error. Langerhans then scored the game-winning run in the 11th inning for a 13-12 victory.

"You think you've seen everything and wonder what else can happen, and something else happens," Baker said.

Like July 1, when closer Ryan Dempster was one out away from preserving a Cubs victory over the crosstown Chicago White Sox and served up a three-game homer to public enemy No. 1, A.J. Pierzynski. On June 27 against Milwaukee, Dempster's throw to third to get a runner sailed into left field for an error, allowing the go-ahead run to score in the ninth.

"I'm embarrassed, I really am," Dempster said.

That pretty much sums up the first half for the Cubs.

"I think any manager at this level, there's certain things that fall on the manager, but bottom line, we're making mistakes that are not coaching's fault," Prior said. "They're physical mistakes, mental mistakes that you should've picked up in college. I don't feel that's the manager's fault by any means.

"We need to go out and we need to play," Prior said. "We're all in this together. Nobody's giving up on each other. As much as people want to point fingers at each other, we're all pretty tight in here and we know the position we're in. We got in this position as a team and we'll fight our way out as a team."

Baker is optimistic.

"I hope we can go deeper in games with our starters, cut down on walks, cut down on home runs, increase our on-base percentage, hit better with runners in scoring position and play smarter on the bases -- be more aggressive and smarter," he said.

"[We want to] be respectable. And to win," Baker said. "There's a lot of games left. We haven't had a real good streak in a couple years. We're due for a real good streak. We have to get some breaks and capitalize on them."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.