In '09, injury prevented righty from making Opening Day start
By Kelly Thesier / MLB.com
Scott Baker has waited more than a year to get this opportunity.
Four days before he was scheduled to make his first Opening Day start last season, Baker was placed on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder stiffness. It was a disappointing moment for the pitcher, who was eagerly anticipating the chance to pitch the first game of the Twins' season.
And it's why Baker is a tad cautious when he talks about getting a second chance at the honor this season.
"[I] still have a few days to go," Baker said with a chuckle when asked about his Opening Day start against the Angels in Anaheim on Monday at 9:05 p.m. CT. "But it feels good. Obviously, there are going to be a few nerves there. I say that because I think it's kind of a big deal. Some people may not think that, but I think it's a big honor. So I'm going to go out there and enjoy it."
After coming back from the shoulder injury, Baker then had a rough start to his 2009 season. He went 2-6 with a 6.32 ERA over the first two months of the season. But after June 1, he went 13-3 with a 3.67 ERA and helped lead the Twins to an American League Central title -- even pitching Game 163 against the Tigers in the one-game tiebreaker, although he got a no-decision in the extra-innings victory.
This spring, Baker has limited the number of homers he's allowed, and he's managed, for the most part, to stay away from the big inning. Those are all things that Baker has carried over from a strong finish to the 2009 season, pitching coach Rick Anderson said.
"The confidence and the consistency he's shown, he's kind of figuring himself out," Anderson said. "Last year, he kind of figured out how to make adjustments quicker -- pitch-to-pitch, hitter-to-hitter. He's recognizing why you throw a ball high, recognizing when you are going too fast and when you have to slow the ball down.
"You saw early last year he had the big inning a lot. He'd have a no-hitter through four innings, and all of a sudden, the fifth inning it's, 'What happened?' He needed to stop the big inning and that's the big thing. That's a part of maturity and figuring things out."
The comfort level can be seen in Baker's relaxed nature within the clubhouse. Leaning back in the chair by his locker with his right leg crossed over his left, Baker looks the picture of a comfortable veteran.
"Scott, he's a quiet kind of guy, I guess, but you can just tell his confidence level is high or higher than what it's been," catcher Joe Mauer said. "I think he's kind of embraced that he's one of our frontline guys, and he's taken to that role. His work ethic was never a concern. It was just getting him to believe that he is that guy. I think he's starting to do that. He's got great stuff, and I think he's going to have a big year for us."
But even Baker admits it's taken some time for him to gain that comfort level, particularly when it comes to being looked at as a veteran member of the Twins' starting staff.
"I definitely enjoy where I'm at right now," Baker said. "There are not a lot of places I would rather be than in this clubhouse, for sure."
Even more important to Baker than some of the strong results he's put up this spring has been the fact that he's feeling healthy and has been without any distractions. Baker has acknowledged that the contract discussions last spring may have unconsciously affected his focus and not allowed him to be mentally ready for the start of the season. So he focused on making sure that wasn't the case this year.
"I would say that feeling healthy and feeling good about your pitches is more important to me than the results I've been getting in spring," Baker said. "I haven't changed anything, haven't done anything differently. But if you are feeling healthy, then you definitely feel good about everything. You are getting your pitch count up there where it needs to be, your arm feels great and you are recovering good. The name of the game is staying healthy and being able to recover."
Opening Day won't just mark Baker's first time to lead off the rotation in a season, it will also mark the debuts of some new Twins, including second baseman Orlando Hudson, shortstop J.J. Hardy and veteran slugger Jim Thome, who is expected to contribute off the bench.
The additions have created what many believe is the deepest Twins lineup in recent history. And while Baker said he can't rely on the offense to score a ton of runs for him every start, he knows there is a lot of potential.
"We are very deep in our lineup," Baker said. "We're absolutely going to score a lot of runs, for sure. That's not necessarily part of the thought process for me. I go out there trying to give up zero hits. It just doesn't work out every time. Hopefully, I think we're just going to win more ballgames as a team. We're all working toward a common goal. That's the most important thing. If we can win a ballgame, I'd rather have that than to put up phenomenal numbers and have the team not win."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.