On Oct. 3, 2003, with the Cubs and Atlanta tied at one game apiece in their divisional playoff series, Mark Prior took the mound at Wrigley Field against future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux and produced one of the great pitching performances in Cubs history: 9 innings, 2 hits, 1 run, 7 strikeouts. Prior spoke to RedEye about that game.
Take us through your performance, Mark.
I grew up watching Cubs and Braves games because of WGN and TBS. I'd watched a lot of their games. And there was just an aura around the Braves and the playoffs and their history of being there. For me it was a little surreal. "Wow, not only are we in the playoffs, but we're playing the Braves." And I know they only won one championship but they were there every year. It was a little nerve-wracking for me, because I was so young, and I was so fresh from watching a lot of these guys on TV. So I think it was good for me to sit back for two games and get the experience of the emotion and the intensity of the games before I actually had to pitch. When my game came around when we got back home, I was ready.
I remember it was a Friday night game, which if I'm not mistaken was probably the first scheduled night game on a Friday there at the time. I believe it rained most of the day, so I just remember sitting at home, basically like, "I'm ready to go, but it's raining, so there's really nothing to do." I remember getting to the field, and the tarp was on, so your normal batting practice routine got interrupted. I used to go out and hit, get warmed up a little bit. All that was a little bit out of the norm.
I just remember going out and [Cubs pitching coach] Larry [Rothschild] said, "We're scheduled to be on time." So I go out and play long toss, and it's looking dark. It's cloudy. It looks like it's going to rain again. So I say, "Larry, you sure we're on time?" and he said, "Yep, we're on time."
So I started warming up, and I look over, and Maddux was just kind of staring at me. I'm thinking, "What does he know that I don't know? He's not warming up. The game's in 10 minutes." And then sure enough, here come the groundskeepers to roll out the tarp. I'd already started warming up, and then I had to go back inside. Looking back, it could have been good, it could have been bad. But I think it was good because whatever anxiety I felt warming up, going back in almost got me mad. [Laughs.] It was only a 20-minute wait, and we went back out and we just went, man.
Most of the game I was pretty focused. Nothing really got in my way. It was just one of those games where you're in a groove and boom, you're just executing everything the way you needed to.
I do remember coming out in the ninth inning, either during warmups or right before the first pitch, they were chanting my name. I remember how loud it was. I had to take a step off the rubber and be like, "All right, wow, this is for real." That was a very intense—it's tough to describe. There was so much emotion and energy in that ballpark. It was the first time that I really felt it during the game. It gave me goosebumps. I was amped up. The amount of energy at the ballpark toward the end of that game was unbelievable.
The only pitch I remember clear as day was the pitch to Javy Lopez. I had him 0-2 or 1-2, and I threw a curve ball that literally probably only went about 45 feet. It was over in the lefthander's batters box. And he swung at it. And I was just like, "Oh my goodness." [Catcher] Damian [Miller] had no chance. [Laughs.] You know, it was a 3-1 game, or a 2-1 game, or a 3-2 game …
It was 3-1.
Yeah. And at the time, I was like, "Oh no, we can't have a base runner." Because in that ballpark, you never know. It only takes one blast and they're right back in it. So I was more like, "Oh man!" Even though I struck him out, we got a base runner. I don't know if they pinch ran, but anything can happen at that point, so I think I got more nervous about that.
But it was fun, and we got through it. I pitched well. The last out was a pop out. I think that's the one picture that everybody sees where I'm pointing at the sky. People probably look at it and think, "He must have been pointing to thank the good Lord," but it was more just, "Hey, make sure you guys see that up there." You know?
As a fan, we're seeing all the stats going up, and we're saying "Oh wow, Prior's only allowed one hit," or whatever. Are you aware of that stuff? As the game goes on and you're beating a Hall of Famer, what's in your head?
In that game, I'm definitely not worried about hits. I always knew when I was adding strikeouts up, because I was reminded by all the people out in left field. When I would strike a guy out I would turn toward the third-base side and follow the catcher's throw to third base, so my sight would always somehow—well, sometimes you just look, I'm not gonna lie—but I think they started it for Woody back in 1998. Those guys who were putting up the K signs.
They would always hold up cards. And they were big, so you would always see them. So I think I knew I was adding some strikeouts, but honestly, it's playoffs. You're looking for one thing, and that's to put up the W. You could care less about anything else. As cliché as that sounds, that's the honest-to-God truth. You just want to win games.
I don't remember much after the game. I remember doing my press conference. And I think by the time I got cleaned up and showered, most of the crowd had at least dissipated right around the exits of the ballpark, though by no means had they gone home out of the neighborhood. [Laughs.] I just went home and went to bed.
I think we had a day game the next day. Like a 3 o'clock game or something like that. And it was one of those, "We're up 2-1, but if we lose, we need to go to Atlanta. But come prepared, because if San Francisco wins and we win, then we're going to San Francisco." Inevitably I was like, "I'm not going to pack [for Atlanta], because we're going to win [Game 4]." And then we didn't win, and I had to run home and pack real quick. It was tough. [Laughs.]
A lot of Cubs fans look at Game 3 as one of the great pitching performances in Cubs history. Where do you put that in the best games that you've ever pitched?
I would say probably top 2. That game, and then the game I had thrown at home earlier that year against the Expos. The Braves take priority because it was a playoff game and what it meant, but that game I threw against Javy Vasquez in April was a pretty special game. I think we struck out like 27 guys and didn't walk anybody between the two of us. So I'd say it's probably No. 1, closely followed by that other game.