Prior backs down Cards

After the Cubs beat St. Louis in his last start in Busch Stadium in mid-May, Mark Prior flat-out stated they were better than the Cardinals.

It was a bold statement for a 22-year-old who had only 12 major-league victories under his belt at the time, and those words easily could have haunted Prior.

But he never backed down, and he backed up his mouth again on Tuesday at Busch in a 7-4 victory over St. Louis before 36,563 sweltering fans.

Prior (13-5) won his fifth straight start since coming off the disabled list, allowing one run on three hits in eight innings, striking out six. He has an 0.69 earned-run average in those five victories, yielding only 21 hits in 38 innings with 35 strikeouts and four walks.

Prior insisted he put no undue pressure on himself or his team by making that statement in May.

"Not really," he said. "They beat me in Chicago on one bad pitch. They're a good ballclub. I'm not going to take anything away from them. I still think, and I think everyone has to think, we're a better ballclub.

"Houston thinks they're the better ballclub. St. Louis thinks they're the better ballclub. It's just a matter of everyone staying confident and positive and fighting until the end. It looks like it's going to come down to the last weekend."

Manager Dusty Baker doesn't mind his players making brash statements, as long as they know what they're getting themselves into.

"Jeff Kent said Houston is better than us," Baker said. "I don't put a muzzle on our guys. I don't mind. This is America. You can say what you want to say. But again, whatever you say, you're going to have to answer to what you said. I don't even know if [the Cardinals] think about it or remember it. I didn't remember it until [now]."

The Cubs pushed the Cardinals into third-place in the National League Central, one game behind Houston, while the Cubs moved into second, a ½ game behind the Astros. And with Philadelphia and Florida both losing, the Cubs suddenly find themselves only 1½ games behind the wild-card co-leaders.

Baker referred to St. Louis Tuesday night as "the hottest place on earth," and with a game-time temperature of 96 degrees, no one was arguing. But Prior and the Cubs ignored the brutal conditions and their 11-40 record in Busch Stadium since 1996, taking it to the Cardinals in the series opener.

The Cubs broke the game open with a six-run third inning, batting around against Cardinals right-hander Garrett Stephenson (7-13).

A trio of Pirates refugees did most of the damage, starting with Kenny Lofton's RBI double. Ramon Martinez followed with a run-scoring single and Randall Simon belted a three-run homer to make it 5-0.

"I didn't know the pitch was high," Simon said. "If you saw the pitch I hit in Arizona, you'd ask 'How did I do that' too?"

Before Simon was finished celebrating in the dugout, Aramis Ramirez added a shot to center on the next pitch, silencing the sea of red.

With the Cubs leading 7-0 and two outs in the sixth, Albert Pujols cranked a 414-foot home run, ending an 0-for-13 skid and snapping Prior's shutout. The Cardinals scored three in the ninth off Kyle Farnsworth to put a scare in Cub fans, but Mike Remlinger shut the door at the end.

"We made it exciting," Baker said. "Like we usually do. But it's big when you have a big inning here and start the series off here like that."