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Prior makes progress with command

Prior makes progress in intrasquad outing

MESA, Ariz. -- Cubs pitcher Jason Marquis looked ready for Opening Day. Mark Prior may need a little more time.

Marquis and Prior threw in a Minor League intrasquad game early Friday at Fitch Park. Marquis, scheduled to start the third game of the regular season April 5 against Cincinnati, threw 86 pitches over five innings against Triple-A hitters. Prior, battling for the fifth spot in the rotation, threw 68 pitches, 45 for strikes.

In his two Cactus League outings, Prior has struggled with command of his breaking pitches, and Friday's outing gave him a chance to work on his mechanics.

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"[My command] was better," Prior said. "I threw a lot of [breaking pitches] for strikes. That was the goal, to locate it a little better."

In four innings against Double-A hitters, Prior gave up one hit, two walks, hit a batter and struck out four. In his first inning, he threw three strikes out of nine pitches. He finished with first-pitch strikes to seven of the 15 batters he faced. What was different today compared to his two Cactus League outings?

"I worked on some things on the side day [Tuesday], and just throwing and trusting that it will do what it's supposed to do and not really worry about the results after you throw it," he said.

He was able to locate his fastball better, and throw some knee-high pitches to left-handed hitters better than he did in previous outings.

"I don't expect him to go from where we were to where he was a few years ago," Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. "As long as he's pushing it, which he is, he's able to throw with all the side sessions, and be able to throw on the designated day, he'll be able to get through it in time. It may not be the timetable you'd like to put down on paper and see. As long as we keep pushing it, I think we have a chance to get through this."

Prior was slowed last season because of his shoulder, and made nine starts. He was 1-6 with a 7.21 ERA, a far cry from his 18-win season in 2003.

On Friday, his fastballs were clocked from 85-90 mph, primarily 85-88 mph.

"We're just trying to take smaller steps and get to where we want to end up and today he did that," Rothschild said.

Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, team president John McDonough, special assistant Gary Hughes, player development director Oneri Fleita and team physician Dr. Stephen Adams were gathered in the tower in the center of the four practice fields at Fitch Park to watch Prior.

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The game, played on Field 2, also drew about 50 early bird fans. While Prior was the center of attention, Marquis looked sharp in his workout.

"He's throwing the ball real well," Rothschild said of the right-hander, one of the free agents added this offseason. "It was a good day to build up some stamina and work on some pitches that he wouldn't throw in a game."

Marquis is slotted into the Cubs rotation behind Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly and ahead of Rich Hill. Who fills the fifth spot may not be determined until the final week of Spring Training, and the competition is between Wade Miller, Angel Guzman and Prior.

"That's not really my concern right now," Prior said of the battle for the final spot. "My concern is about keeping things simple and trying to get back to throwing the ball effectively and efficiently. I'll let all that play out. It's two weeks away. It can be an eternity or it can be short, it depends how you're viewing it."

What's the next step?

"Go home and get some lunch -- I don't know," Prior said.

Rothschild said he wanted to see how the right-hander felt on Saturday before saying when Prior would pitch next.

"I'm worried pretty much about tomorrow," Prior said. "In four, five days, I'll probably be throwing. I'm just going out and working on things and doing what I can control. Today was a good day. There are still a lot of things to improve on, so just keep working on those. It was a good outing."

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

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