Friday is the day Dusty Baker has been waiting for since April because his entire starting lineup, rotation and bullpen will be together at the same time.
"It feels great," Baker said Thursday morning. "I just hope my whole army is sharp."
But even with the return of Nomar Garciaparra, Kerry Wood and Scott Williamson on Friday in New York, Baker's "army" has a decidedly uphill battle on its hands in the final 54 games of the season.
The degree of difficulty increased Thursday when Mark Prior put the Cubs in a deep hole in the first inning of a 6-4 loss to the Phillies. The team is back to .500 at 54-54 and 5½ games behind wild-card leading Houston before the Astros' game at Arizona late Thursday night.
"You're tired of putting games behind you," Baker said. "Seems like we've been doing a lot of that lately. We have to come out and jump some guys early, like [the Phillies] jumped us early. We have to do a better job and play better baseball in New York than we did here."
The Cubs have lost five of their last seven, and despite ranking second in National League home runs, they have not homered in the last five games. They have scored more than four runs only once in their last 10 games, a 13-6 loss to Arizona on July 31.
Prior trailed 4-0 after facing four batters.
"We have to win ballgames, and I didn't help us at all today," Prior said. "Obviously this is a big series because they're a team that's right with us as far as the wild-card [race]. I was disappointed in myself that I didn't come out today and pitch a lot better than I did."
In a game where the Cubs needed to set the tone early, Prior (7-4) gave up six runs on three home runs in 41/3 innings. Bobby Abreu reached him for a grand slam in the first inning after he'd given up two singles and a walk to the first three hitters he faced.
Todd Pratt and Chase Utley hit home runs leading off the fourth and fifth innings, respectively, each homer coming in an inning after the Cubs had cut into the deficit.
"I felt fine," Prior said. "I just got behind guys early on and made it a lot easier on Abreu to know what was coming. I just didn't throw the ball well."
Prior's inability to locate his curve early was the harbinger to impending disaster. He has served up a career-high 17 home runs and is 2-3 over his last seven starts with a 5.14 earned-run average.
The Cubs managed 10 hits off starter Brett Myers, but only one in the final 22/3 innings against relievers Ryan Madsen, Ugueth Urbina and Billy Wagner, who recorded his 25th save with a perfect ninth.
After Abreu's slam put the Phillies in charge, the Cubs chipped away at Myers. Run-scoring singles by Neifi Perez and Henry Blanco in the fourth made it a 4-2 game, before Pratt homered on Prior's first pitch in the bottom of the inning.
Aramis Ramirez's two-run single in the fifth pulled the Cubs to within a run at 5-4 before Utley homered on Prior's second pitch in the bottom of the inning. That was the end for Prior. Curiously, pitching coach Larry Rothschild came come to the mound to remove him instead of Baker.
The Cubs learned after the game that Jerry Hairston would be placed on the 15-day disabled list with a torn ligament in his left elbow, putting them in a precarious position as they head to New York for a three-game series against the Mets, another wild-card contender.
The spotlight will be on the returns of Garciaparra, Wood and Williamson, who were part of the reason the Cubs opted not to make any major acquisitions at the trading deadline.
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