MILWAUKEE—Mark Prior's comet-like trajectory through the major leagues has hit a speed bump in his comeback from an Achilles' tendon injury.
Victories suddenly are hard to come by for the dominant Cubs right-hander, who hadn't faced any real adversity in his first 1½ seasons in the big leagues.
Prior lasted only four innings Tuesday in a 4-2 loss to Milwaukee, falling into an early hole and watching his offense sputter before 42,295 at Miller Park.
Afterward, Prior faced the media as though he was standing in front of a firing squad.
"We lost," he said. "Bottom line."
In his seven starts since returning from the disabled list on June 4, Prior has only two victories despite giving up one or no earned runs in four of those starts. He allowed four runs on four hits and three walks Tuesday, throwing 92 pitches and being removed for a pinch-hitter in the top of the fifth.
"I didn't make pitches in the first inning," he said. "I didn't execute when I needed to."
Is Prior the victim of unreasonable expectations after going 24-12 his first two seasons?
"You only have one year to compare it to actually," manager Dusty Baker said. "And a half a year. He'll be fine."
The Cubs dropped to five games behind first-place St. Louis, their biggest deficit since June 27, with their second straight loss in Milwaukee.
Brewers right-hander Victor Santos (8-3) held the Cubs to two runs on five hits over 62/3 innings, earning his sixth victory in his last seven starts. Dan Kolb pitched a scoreless ninth for his 26th save and second in the last two days.
The Brewers capitalized on some shaky fielding in the first inning to grab a quick 4-0 lead. Scott Podsednik doubled off the glove of shortstop Ramon Martinez leading off and scored on a bad throw by rookie third baseman Brendan Harris on Craig Counsell's bunt hit.
After Harris made a diving grab of a Lyle Overbay line drive for the second out, Ben Grieve doubled down the first-base line to make it 2-0 and Keith Ginter smacked a two-run homer to left, only the third off Prior this season.
"That first inning cost him 30 pitches or so," Baker said. "He got his pitch count up rather quickly."
The Cubs came back with two in the third off Santos on back-to-back doubles by Michael Barrett and Martinez and an RBI double by Harris, his first major-league hit.
"It didn't start very well," Harris said. "Felt like a plus-one, like I was playing hockey. I took one away and I knocked one in. Tough start, but that's all right. After I got a hit, I calmed down a lot."
After the Cubs wasted Corey Patterson's leadoff triple in the fourth and Baker pinch-hit for Prior in the fifth after Prior had struck out the side in the previous half-inning.
"He looked pretty good there, but he had 92 (pitches), so if he goes back out, he'll knock on 100 or something," Baker said.
Rookie Jon Leicester threw two scoreless innings to keep the Cubs in the game, but the offense continued to fail in the clutch. They put two on with two outs in the seventh before reliever Mike Adams replaced Santos and retired pinch-hitter Todd Walker on a grounder to second.
The Cubs threatened in the ninth when third baseman Wes Helms made a two-base throwing error on a leadoff grounder by Derrek Lee. With two outs, Jose Macias reached on an infield hit that sent Lee to third, but Mark Grudzielanek grounded to third to end the suspense.
No one is harder on Prior than himself, and after the difficult start to his 2004 season, Prior is taking it harder than anyone.
"The bottom line is I just need to pitch better," Prior said.