PEORIA, Ariz. -- All Mark Prior needed was a little more time.

Prior threw 59 pitches, 35 for strikes, over four innings Thursday for the Cubs in a rain-shortened game against the San Diego Padres, and looked much sharper than his previous two Cactus League outings.

Prior got his work in before the rain came. Rich Hill, who will be the fourth starter in the Cubs rotation, threw 17 pitches in one inning, and then the game was called with the Padres winning, 1-0.

Before the game, Cubs manager Lou Piniella said Wade Miller appeared to have the edge for the fifth starter spot, but in fairness to Prior, didn't want to say that was 100 percent set. Miller will make his fifth start on Saturday, and has totaled 12 1/3 innings so far, giving up seven earned runs on 19 hits and four walks while striking out 11.

As far as Prior is concerned, he's still in contention for the job.

"I felt good, my arm feels great," Prior said. "A lot of stuff we've been working on in the last week or so is starting to pay off. When I came out [to the mound], I had a little adrenaline running through me a little more than I wanted to. They weren't taking that many good swings off me and they weren't hitting the ball hard, so it was a good outing."

Could he be ready when the Cubs need a fifth starter on April 7?

"Yeah," Prior said. "There was never a doubt."

"Prior threw much better," Piniella said after the game. "It was a big improvement over his last start here in Peoria [March 5]. He got his breaking ball over today, and he looked a lot more comfortable on the mound and he popped a few fastballs. It's an improvement."

The radar gun for the Cubs television broadcast said Prior hit 93 mph on a called third strike fastball to Khalil Greene to end the third inning.

"That was awesome," Cubs catcher Michael Barrett said of the pitch.

"That was a good pitch," Prior said. "We set him up well, slowed his bat speed down and just located a good fastball."

According to some scouts' radar guns, Prior topped at 89 mph, and averaged 86-87 mph. The velocity wasn't as important as his ability to locate his pitches better.

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"He threw the ball better -- that's the important thing," Piniella said. "It's a really, really nice step forward for him. I think the idea of not rushing him and giving him time, it's the right tonic."

Prior threw first-pitch strikes to eight of the 18 batters he faced. The right-hander gave up one run on four hits and two walks over four innings while striking out three.

It was Prior's first Cactus League game since March 10, when he threw two innings against Kansas City. Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild had the right-hander throw four innings in a Minor League intrasquad game last Friday to give him a chance to work on his mechanics.

In the first inning Thursday, he threw 17 pitches, nine for strikes. He threw first-pitch strikes to two of the six batters he faced, and gave up four consecutive hits, including an RBI single by Mike Cameron. Josh Bard tried to score on Greene's single and was thrown out at home by left fielder Matt Murton to end the inning.

Prior struck out Kevin Kouzmanoff on three pitches to open the second inning, and threw 10 pitches, facing four batters. In the third, he got Brian Giles to fly out on the first pitch, then threw six straight balls. Barrett went to the mound for a chat.

"I was trying to rush instead of sitting back and letting it go nice and relaxed," Prior said. "I was trying to do a little too much."

He finished with a 1-2-3 fourth, and got former teammate Greg Maddux looking at strike three to end the inning and his outing.

"It looked like he was consistent and in total control with everything," Barrett said of Prior. "I think the more he pitches, the more confidence he's gotten, the better his command has been. It's just a matter of time. He just has to continue to work."

The Cubs won't know the next step until they see how Prior feels on Friday. The right-hander won 18 games in 2003, but was limited to nine starts last season because of injuries, primarily to his shoulder. He spent the winter strengthening his shoulder with a therapist in San Diego. His hard work appears to have paid off.

"I've got a week left to go and I'm ready to rock and roll and get out of this place and move on," Prior said. "I'm pretty close. I felt I could've gone another [inning] out there today. I don't know how many pitches I threw. I think I need about one more outing, work on some things, build up some stamina but I think I'm pretty close."