The Chicago Cubs have suffered through a devastating series of injuries that dragged them almost to the bottom of the National League Central standings, but the return of pitcher Mark Prior this weekend might signal the beginning of a major recovery.
Prior, who was 18-6 last year before falling victim to an Achilles' problem and a sore elbow this spring, finally rejoined the major league rotation Friday, pitching six solid innings but getting no decision. The club still has Sammy Sosa, Kerry Wood and several other key players to go, but it appears the worst is past.
"It's going to be a tremendous boost [having Prior back every fifth day]," manager Dusty Baker said. "We've been waiting on Mark all year long."
The Cubs had nine players on the disabled list at one point, the highest number for the franchise since at least 1970, but Prior returned to a team that, before Friday, had fallen only 4 1/2 games out of first place in the balanced NL Central.
Sosa, who has been on the disabled list with a freak back injury brought on by a sneeze, has begun swinging a bat and could be back this week. Wood, on the DL with a sore shoulder, has resumed throwing and hopes to return by the middle of the month.
Relief pitcher Kent Mercker returned from the DL on Friday, and second baseman Mark Grudzielanek is close to being activated.
"Every time you get these guys back, it's like making a trade," Baker said. "You're getting quality guys back. I would like to get one back every two or three days."
Of course, there is no guarantee that the Cubs' winning chemistry comes back with them. The Cincinnati Reds continue to play over their heads, and the St. Louis Cardinals have ridden Albert Pujols back into the thick of the race.
Maybe it won't just be the Cubs and Houston Astros after all.
The Astros also have been dealing with a major pitching issue all season and clearly did the right thing when they put left-hander Andy Pettitte back on the disabled list with a strained left forearm.
Pettitte already has spent much of the season on the DL, but he still has managed to win four of five decisions. He and Roger Clemens (8-0) are a combined 12-1, so the Astros have gotten their money's worth from their dynamic free-agent duo. That'll still be the case when Pettitte returns June 13.
"It doesn't make sense to take a chance," said Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker. "There's a lot of season ahead of us and it's better to be cautious and have him miss another start now than to take the risk and possibly make matters worse."
Clemens is off to his best start since he went 14-0 with the Boston Red Sox in 1986, and his success has his hometown all atwitter.
"It's been crazy since the day we signed Roger," first baseman Jeff Bagwell said. "The whole city has followed him his entire life, from high school, college and in the pros, so it was a huge deal when he signed and he came with all of that mystique. But you know what? He backs it up."
San Francisco Giants GM Brian Sabean threatened a major roster shakeup when the club dropped to 16-24 and appeared on the way to an early exit from the NL West race, but the team closed ranks and embarked on a 10-game winning streak that ended speculation that several veterans would be traded or released.
Some said Sabean's threat was just bluster, but there have been whispers that the front office had targeted six veterans for removal from the roster.
"I was dead serious," Sabean said. "We had to do something to stem the tide, and they did it themselves. I was close to doing something, but they saved themselves from themselves."
Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Milton Bradley threw quite a tantrum after he was ejected from Tuesday night's game by umpire Terry Craft. It was the latest in a series of emotional episodes that have marked Bradley as one of baseball's top hotheads - he earned a suspension for his childish behavior - but he may be getting a bit of a raw deal this time.
Bradley apparently irritated the umpiring crew by barking at Craft from the dugout about a called strike call on another Dodgers hitter. Crew chief Joe West tried to confront him on the field after the inning, but Bradley jogged right by him. So when Bradley arrived at the plate for his next at-bat, Craft was waiting.
"I told him he had better think twice before he yells from the dugout," Craft said after the game. "Then, he went off on me, and I ejected him."
The umpires triggered a major disruption in the flow of the game because they didn't deal with a minor situation right when it happened.
What a terrible time for Magglio Ordonez to go down with a strange and troublesome knee injury. He sprained a muscle near his left knee and faces possible surgery that could keep him out of the Chicago White Sox's lineup for six weeks.