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Prior power vs. Maddux jabs

CHICAGO -- So much for the prelims.

Sure, it's a fabulous undercard when it includes a matchup like that Kerry Wood-Russ Ortiz heavyweight battle in Game 1. But the bout that Chicago has awaited since Hippo Vaughn faced Boston lefty Babe Ruth in 1918 comes up on Friday night at Wrigley Field.

In one corner, we have Greg Maddux as Sonny Liston, the decorated warhorse who has defined greatness.

In the other corner, we have Mark Prior as Muhammad Ali, the confident, articulate contender whose early success marks him as The Next Big Thing. Making this meeting even more dramatic, the aging champ once walked in the kid's shoes, spending the first seven seasons of his Hall of Fame career with the Cubs.

The late Dick Schaap would have loved this one. Instead of Jon Miller, this Game 3 ought to be called by Jim Lampley and Max Kellerman.

All the elements are in place for a classic as Maddux, who 15 years ago won 18 games in his first full season in the majors, uses his experience against Prior, who likewise won 18 games this season.

"Those guys are very similar, almost identical, except for their stuff,'' said Cubs bench coach Dick Pole, who was Don Zimmer's pitching coach when Maddux was getting started. "They are both very intellectual about it. They read hitters and they learn from their mistakes. They won't make the same one twice.''

Pole says Maddux's fastball topped out at 93 when he helped the Cubs win the National League East in 1989. He rarely hits 90 with it these days. But he's used an uncanny ability to locate his pitches and change speeds to win 289 games, including an unprecedented streak of 16 consecutive 15-win seasons.

Maddux was a second-round pick in the 1984 draft from Valley High in Las Vegas. Prior was the second overall pick in the 2001 draft from USC. He should have been the first but Minnesota opted for catcher Joe Mauer, a hometown product.

Maddux reached the big leagues at age 20. Prior didn't get there until he was 21. But he served notice immediately, using his 97-mph fastball, sharp curve and an improved changeup to dominate hitters during his first spring training.

Scouts gushed about his ability and his poise. One called him "Greg Maddux with better stuff.''

Maddux has four Cy Young Awards. Prior might have won his first this season if not for Los Angeles closer Eric Gagne having arguably the best season any pitcher has had since Bob Gibson in 1968.

Prior, more than Wood, pitched the Cubs into the playoffs. He went 10-1 with a 1.52 ERA in 11 starts after a stint on the disabled list, which followed his collision with Atlanta's Marcus Giles.

He sat through a three-hour rain delay before blanking St. Louis in the opener of a five-game series in early September. He dominated in Pittsburgh after back-to-back losses had left the Cubs 1 1-2 games behind Houston with seven to go and then won the biggest game on the final weekend against the Pirates.

No wonder Bobby Cox downplays the edge Maddux will have in experience.

"I think (in the postseason) talent is the key,'' Cox said. "I don't think experience has that much to do with it, if you have talent. I can remember Steve Avery pitching one of the greatest games in the postseason, and I think he was only 20 years old and (in) his first experience with it.''

Avery, who was in his rookie season, was the MVP of the NL Championship Series in 1991. He threw 16 1/3 innings to win two 1-0 games, including a Game 6 victory over veteran Doug Drabek when the Braves were on the verge of elimination.

This is a storyline that repeats itself through the history of baseball -- the young stud against the old pro.

Cox is right about the kids holding their own in October. Jim Palmer went toe to toe with Sandy Koufax in the 1966 World Series and came out on top. Tom Seaver beat Mike Cuellar in '69. Bret Saberhagen beat Joaquin Andujar in '85. Dwight Gooden matched fastballs with Nolan Ryan in the classic Game 5 of the Mets-Astros championship series in '86. An unsung John Smoltz traded stares with Jack Morris in Game 7 in '91.

Not only does Prior vs. Maddux belong in the same category, but it's also loaded with sentiment for Chicago fans, like Roger Clemens' return to Fenway Park in the 2000 ALCS.

While Clemens was perceived as a turncoat when he left the Red Sox to join Toronto, Cub fans long ago forgave Maddux for fleeing Chicago after seven seasons to sign with Atlanta. Their wrath is directed toward the Tribune Co. and former club executives for allowing Maddux to become a free agent in the first place.

Maddux has always been treated warmly upon his returns to Wrigley Field. It will be interesting to see if that trend continues when he's introduced on Friday night.

Either way, don't expect either Maddux or Prior to be ruffled by the circumstances around them.

"Maybe the best thing they do is they keep it simple,'' Pole said. "They don't overcomplicate it. There aren't many secrets in baseball. There's no huddle where somebody calls a trick play. Everything is out there. You can look around, look at the hitter, look at the fielders, look at the scoreboard. Everything's right in front of you.''

Assuming a shaky weekend weather forecast doesn't spoil the occasion, the view should be exquisite on Friday.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.