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Maybe the collision between Mark Prior and Marcus Giles wasn't so horrible after all.
Since that ugly July 11 spill at Wrigley Field, which left Prior on the disabled list with a sore shoulder and knocked Giles out of the All-Star Game, the two All-Stars have raised their level of play.
Giles is hitting .384 in the second half for Atlanta. While Prior claims still to be searching for his curveball, he has blown away hitters in four starts since his three weeks' rest, establishing himself as the Cubs' front man for the stretch run.
Prior and relievers Kyle Farnsworth and Joe Borowski combined on a four-hitter as the Cubs beat the first-place Houston Astros 6-0 on Wednesday night before a crowd of 32,810 at Minute Maid Park.
Aramis Ramirez and Randall Simon hit two-run and three-run homers, respectively, and Tony Womack had a three-hit in his first Cubs start as the Cubs evened the series.
"Prior was awesome," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "He came out ready from the opening pitch."
The victory put the Cubs back into the same position they were in when they arrived in Houston: in second place in the National League Central, half a game behind the Astros and half a game ahead of St. Louis, which fell back to third after a 14-0 loss to Pittsburgh.
Kerry Wood will try to pitch the Cubs into the lead Thursday night. He faces Ron Villone in the final game of the season between the Cubs and Astros.
"[Thursday's] a big game," Prior said. "It's going to set the tone for how these teams are going to do in the next five weeks."
Relying mostly on 95 and 96 m.p.h. fastballs, Prior (12-5) took a no-hitter into the sixth inning. He lost it on Adam Everett's leadoff double and wound up allowing four hits in seven innings.
Since going on the disabled list, Prior is 4-0 and has allowed only two runs in 31 innings. He command has been sensational, as he has struck out 29 while walking only three. He allowed only three of 26 Houston hitters to reach three-ball counts.
Prior said the unscheduled downtime allowed him to work on his conditioning as well as his mental approach.
"Sometimes we take what we do for granted," Prior said. "I kind of refocused and directed all my attention on being healthy. I've worked real hard with [pitching coach Larry Rothschild] and our strength coach to be in shape. This is the time of year when some guys fade a little bit."
Prior announced his intentions at the front door. He needed only 11 pitches, all fastballs, to strike out the side in the first inning. Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman and Jeff Bagwell didn't even foul off a pitch, missing the ball on all five of their swings.
"When those three guys are a little late on your fastball, you know you have a good one," Prior said. "It was early, but it's always nice to get going."
Prior struck out Jeff Kent and Richard Hidalgo to start the second inning, but they at least made contact, fouling off pitches. Geoff Blum ended the run of strikeouts by flying out to center fielder Kenny Lofton on a 2-2 pitch.
Catcher Brad Ausmus fought for a leadoff walk in the third. He recovered from a 1-2 hole to earn a nine-pitch walk, fouling off three two-strike pitches. He was the only Astro to reach base until Everett's leadoff double in the sixth.
Ramirez's long homer to left-center off starter Jared Fernandez (1-3) in the fourth inning, and Simon's three-run blast down the right-field line off reliever Ricky Stone in the sixth allowed Baker to pull Prior after only 100 pitches.
He had worked complete games against Los Angeles in his last two starts and gets an extra day of rest before facing St. Louis next week.
Prior said he believes the real question is this: Will the Cardinals and Astros be ready to hang with the Cubs in September.
"If we continue hitting and pitching the way we have, I don't think anybody can stop us," he said. "It was kind of a fluke for Matt [Clement Tuesday] night. I don't think anybody matches up with our pitching staff. That's the key for us."