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Mark Prior spent three long months working to get his arm ready for his comeback from Achilles' tendinitis, but all that hard work could be for naught.
Making his eighth start since his return, Prior was removed in the second inning Thursday night of the Cubs' 4-1 victory over Milwaukee after experiencing discomfort in the back of his right elbow.
Prior will undergo tests Friday at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. If it turns out to be a torn ulnar lateral ligament, the Cubs right-hander could face the prospect of undergoing season-ending reconstructive elbow surgery, and returning next July at the earliest.
Though Prior experienced elbow pain in his last start in Milwaukee, the Cubs kept it quiet, and he hoped it would go away with nine days of rest.
"It's something I've been dealing with on and off since spring training," Prior said. "It has been kind of a mental battle, going in every game and battling myself to make sure I'm all right, make sure I'm healthy. Hopefully we can get some answers this time on what it really is. I can't tell you where I'm at or where I'm going to be.
"Trust me, I want to know what's going on more than anybody. Going in start after start, not knowing what [kind of stuff] I was going to have, being up, being downit has been very frustrating. I figured after nine days off it would subside, and maybe some of the discomfort would go away. I felt great the last three, four days, and I felt great warming up. It felt good through the first three or four hitters. I don't know what happened."
Prior is highly likely to miss several starts even if there is no tear. Kerry Wood's elbow soreness in '98 led to reconstructive surgery in April 1999, and he didn't return to the Cubs until May 2, 2000. The Cubs are concerned Prior will suffer a similar fate.
"You can't get any more worried than being sick to your stomach," manager Dusty Baker said.
Prior's elbow has been an issue since spring training, though the Cubs have downplayed the seriousness of the problem. While rehabbing his Achilles' injury in Mesa, Ariz., Prior complained of elbow stiffness and was sent back to Chicago for tests on April 28. A bone scan was taken, along with MRIs on his Achilles' and right arm, revealing more inflammation in the elbow.
Prior later said the inflammation was "completely away from the ligament" and that Cubs doctors compared it to shin splints. When a published report in early April said Baker was telling friends Prior would need reconstructive elbow surgery, both Baker and Prior reacted angrily.
Prior eventually returned to action on June 4 at Wrigley Field, and went 2-2 in his eight starts with a 4.06 earned-run average. After Prior walked two men and gave up a run in a 30-pitch first inning, he spoke with catcher Michael Barrett about his soreness and decided to "gut it out."
"I caught his entire bullpen [warmup], and in the first inning I thought he had good enough stuff," Barrett said. "I know he wanted to stay in the game. But at that point, in the second inning, nobody wanted to take a chance."
With one out in the second, Chad Moeller grounded to first. After running to first on the play, Prior decided he was done, and reliever Glendon Rusch was called in to take his place.
The Cubs tied it off Doug Davis on Derrek Lee's solo homer and scored three runs in the sixth on a run-scoring wild pitch, Moises Alou's RBI triple past diving center fielder Scott Podsednik and Lee's RBI double off reliever Jeff Bennett.
Rusch (5-1) left with a 4-1 lead after the seventh, yielding no runs on three hits in 51/3 innings.
Kyle Farnsworth experienced control problems in the eighth but struck out Bill Hall with the bases loaded to escape a threat. LaTroy Hawkins closed out in the ninth for his 12th save.