PEORIA, Ariz. (AP) -When Mark Prior got back on a big league mound for the first time since having extensive shoulder surgery, he couldn't have been further removed from his brilliant 2003 season.
It was January, and San Diego's Petco Park was empty. His catcher, appropriately, was the team trainer.
``There was a little bit of excitement and anxiety about it,'' Prior said. ``I think when it was over with I felt like there was a little bit of accomplishment.''
Todd Hutcheson, the trainer who sometimes straps on catching gear to help pitchers get in offseason work, didn't have to put down any signs that day. Prior threw only fastballs.
``If you broke it into thirds, I'm at the two-thirds way home and the last third is probably going to be the hardest third,'' Prior said after one of his every-fifth-day spring training throwing sessions.
That day at Petco Park, he said, ``was another nice kind of milestone or goal, because a lot of guys, as minor a surgery is or as big a surgery is, for some reason don't get back to even being able to doing that.''
Now a member of his hometown Padres, Prior is trying to resurrect a career that was so promising five summers ago with the Chicago Cubs, only to be undone by a seemingly nonstop string of injuries.
He missed all of 2007 with the Cubs after undergoing arthroscopic surgery last April to repair his right rotator cuff, labrum and capsule. He hasn't pitched in a game since Aug. 10, 2006.
The tall right-hander was once thought to be the Cubs' ace of the future. It's anyone's guess whether Prior can come close to regaining his 2003 form.
He finished third in NL Cy Young Award voting that season, when he was 18-6 with a 4.24 ERA and struck out 245 in 211 1-3 innings.
That October, he was on the mound for Game 6 of the NL championship series against Florida with the Cubs leading the series 3-2. Chicago led by three runs in the eighth inning before the Marlins, helped by fan Steve Bartman's interference on a foul ball at Wrigley Field, rallied to win. Florida won Game 7, then went on to win the World Series.
Prior has won just 18 games since then.
Greg Maddux, going into his second season in San Diego, was Prior's teammate for 2 1/2 seasons with the Cubs.
``He was dominant,'' Maddux said. ``He had quick innings, he threw strikes, had good location, good breaking ball, good mound presence, hitters weren't very comfortable. Yeah, solid. He was very sure of what he wanted to do.
``He just needs to get himself healthy. I think once he feels comfortable with his health he can worry about getting hitters out instead of getting back on the mound.''
Maddux and Prior are quite the contrast. The 42-year-old Maddux is going into his 22nd season and has been remarkably injury free while piling up Hall of Fame credentials. Prior has had more than his share of arm trouble and freak injuries.
``I'm fortunate that I had this at 27 (rather) than 37,'' Prior said. ``Guys are pitching late in their careers, and hopefully things will work out and I can put this chapter behind me and move on.''
Prior said he's worked hard to be upbeat and confident about his rehab.
``It's not like every day's been a birthday and it's been great. There have been some tough days,'' he said. ``But it's been just kind of having an approach, 'OK, I've got everything sound, I had a lot in there that was wrong and I got it fixed.' And I think that kind of gave me some closure. It was a long summer and fall but everything's been great.''
lder surgery.
This will be the fifth straight season that Prior has opened on the disabled list, with his injuries having ranged from his shoulder to his elbow to his Achilles. He's expected to start the year on the 15-day disabled list, which would be his 10th career trip to the DL.
Last year, he was demoted to Triple-A Iowa after a poor spring training but ended up having surgery.
The second pick overall in the June 2001 draft, Prior couldn't even get through his breakout '03 season without getting hurt.
Named an All-Star for the first time, he didn't play in the Midsummer Classic after bruising his right shoulder a few days earlier in a basepath collision with Atlanta Braves second baseman Marcus Giles. Giles, who also missed that All-Star game due to the collision, was with San Diego last season and is the younger brother of Padres right fielder Brian Giles.
In May 2005, Prior was hit by a line drive by Colorado's Brad Hawpe, fracturing a bone near his right elbow and sending him to the disabled list for a month.
Prior said he made adjustments in his mechanics after that injury. After a while it all added up to discomfort that led to the shoulder surgery. When he was shut down in '06, he was 1-6 with a 7.21 ERA.
With his arm feeling ``nice and free and easy,'' Prior still needs to keep an eye on it while trying to regain the late life on his fastball and the break in his curveball.
``I'm now at a point where I can actually work on some things, and it's not just, 'OK, let's throw the ball and get it to the place.' Let's start working on mechanics, let's start trying to rebuild the things that had gotten really sideways.''
Prior had offers from other teams, but said it was a no-brainer to sign with the Padres. He'll get $1 million in base pay and the chance to make about $2 million more in incentives, providing he gets into the rotation around June 1 and stays there.
Coincidentally, Prior and Padres third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff were teammates on a Little League all-star team in suburban San Diego.
While the Padres were nosed out of a third straight playoff berth by a painful 13-inning loss to Colorado in a wild-card tiebreaker on Oct. 1, Prior spent a lonely season rehabbing and mostly watching from afar as the Cubs won the NL Central.
He'd love to get back to the playoffs and, of course, win a World Series. Other than that, he said he's trying to prove only one thing.
``I don't come out here and work every day to spite people, I come out here to work because I want to play the game and I want to be good at it. I was good at it once and I want to get back to where I was.''

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