"It's frustrating," Prior said after Saturday's outing against the Kansas City Royals. "It's not the way I want to pitch, it's not the way I can pitch. I have to keep working to get back to where I want to be."
Prior threw 40 pitches over two innings, 20 for strikes, giving up four runs on four hits and three walks. His spring ERA now is 18.90. He was charged with the loss in the Royals' 6-5 win.
"He threw the ball just OK," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "He couldn't get his breaking ball over at all, and he's pitching with one pitch and he's not locating that pitch, so it's not really a recipe for success right now."
Before the game, Piniella said he was looking for improvement, and he had hoped Prior would have a little more velocity on his fastball. This wasn't a make-or-break start for the right-hander, who was sidelined most of last season because of shoulder problems.
"I'm not worried about the velocity," Prior said. "It'll come. It's not something you lose."
On the positive side, Prior said he felt better pitching out of the windup. He also didn't need two hours in the trainer's room just to be able to play catch. He's healthy. It's just a matter of fine-tuning some things.
"For me, it's about getting in shape and about my mechanics," Prior said. "If I don't line things up right, I lose two or three [mph], and I saw that today."
Prior came on in relief of starter Ted Lilly and started the fourth inning. In his first inning, he threw 17 pitches, nine for strikes, and the stadium's radar gun registered 86-88 mph for his fastballs.
The first two batters grounded out, and then former Cub Alex Gonzalez singled to center and Prior walked John Buck after a seven-pitch at-bat. Andres Blanco then flew out to center.
In the fifth, David DeJesus belted his first spring homer off a 1-0 pitch from Prior, who then walked Esteban German on four pitches. One out later, Mike Sweeney walked, and one out later, Ryan Shealy hit an RBI single and Gonzalez followed with a two-run double to make it 5-2.
"He had the same motion, looks like he was free and easy, you know, but the same stuff wasn't coming out, obviously," Royals manager Buddy Bell said. "Hopefully, for his sake and theirs, he comes all the way back. He's a talented kid."
Opening Day is less than one month away. Prior is focused on today.
"I'm just worried about playing, and worried about trying to make myself better," he said. "If I make myself better and I'm pitching the way I can, then I help the ballclub. Right now, I'm worried about getting better myself. What I did the last two outings is not the way I want to pitch, no. I'm better than that."
He is healthy, and it's been a long time since he could say that. But the velocity on his pitches won't improve until he gets aligned right.
"I'm throwing 100 percent," he said. "I'm not blessed with the genetics to throw at 94 [mph] for no reason. I've got to get everything lined up to get to that point, and obviously, get in shape. I'm a little ways from that. That's why there's Spring Training."
Asked if he was neutral or encouraged by Saturday's outing, Prior picked "neutral."
As of now, the Cubs are set with Carlos Zambrano, Lilly, Rich Hill and Jason Marquis. There's one opening in the rotation and one in the bullpen as a long man. The four pitchers competing for the starting job include Prior, Angel Guzman, Wade Miller and Neal Cotts.
Guzman was the star on Saturday. The right-hander gave up one run on five hits over three innings and did not walk a batter.
"He's throwing the ball like he wants a spot here," Piniella said of the young right-hander. "That was impressive. I told him after he pitched that he threw the ball very well and I want him to continue to work hard here in camp, and not take anything for granted. We'll see what happens."
Asked if Guzman could be considered for the long relief role, Piniella said, "I'm not looking at him as a reliever, believe me."
As for Prior, he's got some work to do.
"You can't pitch up here with one pitch, and especially if you're not locating that one pitch," Piniella said. "I don't think he's pleased, obviously. But again, we're only talking about the 10th of March. A lot of things can happen in that period of time."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.