Baker asserting himself as Twins leader among young moundsmen
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In two short years, Scott Baker has gone from not even making the Minnesota Twins rotation out of spring training to becoming the veteran leader of a group as baby-faced as the Jonas Brothers.
The transition has happened so fast that some of his teammates, and the 27-year-old Baker himself, are still getting used to the idea.
"It's not hard to think of him as an ace, it's just hard to think of him as the veteran guy out here, you know?" catcher Mike Redmond said Thursday. "Out of all the guys, he's got the most experience."
Baker enters his fifth spring training as the oldest member of a rotation that includes 27-year-old Nick Blackburn, who has only one full season under his belt, 25-year-olds Francisco Liriano and Glen Perkins, and 24-year-old Kevin Slowey.
Coming off the best season of his career in which he went 11-4 with a 3.45 ERA, Baker appears to have inherited the mantle of staff ace once held by the likes of Johan Santana and Brad Radke. It's not a label Baker has gotten used to wearing just yet.
"Not really, to be honest with you," the soft-spoken Cajun said. "I feel like we've got a good core group of guys, pitchers that have all come up together. I thought everybody handled themselves really well last year."
Yet there is no denying that Baker is the early leader for the coveted role of opening day starter thanks to a 2007 that was as steady as his Southern drawl is long.
"He's turning into a very good pitcher for us," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We've always known he's had great stuff. It's about the mental part of it. I think he's taken huge steps."
After trading Santana to the Mets last offseason, the Twins brought in Livan Hernandez to babysit the youngsters at the start of the season. Hernandez was waived on Aug. 1, and Baker showed the organization he was ready to take over.
While Liriano has the most electrifying stuff, he had to be sent down early last season to hone his mechanics after missing all of 2007 with Tommy John surgery.
Baker's ERA was eighth in the AL and he was at his best when the Twins needed him most, going 3-0 with a 2.53 ERA in his final five starts to help the Twins rally to tie the White Sox before losing the AL Central title in a one-game playoff.
"Once Livo left, it obviously showed the organization trusts the starting pitchers a lot, putting five young guys without a ton of experience out there," Baker said. "It's just the direction the organization wanted to go and I think everybody in the rotation was pretty happy with that."
It wasn't always like this for Baker, a former second-round draft pick out of Oklahoma State who struggled to find his pitching legs in an organization full of talented young arms.
He was up and down between the big club and the minors five times in his first two-plus seasons. Baker went 5-8 with a 6.37 ERA in 16 starts in 2006 and didn't make the team out of spring training to start 2007.
That inconsistency had Twins fans scoffing when their team refused to part with the right-hander to bring Alfonso Soriano to Minnesota for a playoff run in 2006.
Now that Baker has settled in, that faith appears to be justified.
"He's learned to control the game and not let the game control him," Gardenhire said.
The turnaround started in 2007, when Baker finally heeded the Twins' pleas for him to keep the ball down in the zone and trust his catcher when it came to calling a game.
Baker threw two complete games that season, the last one a masterpiece in which he carried a perfect game into the ninth inning of a one-hit victory over the Kansas City Royals on Aug. 31.
"He got to a point where he was just walking around a little too much instead of getting up and attacking the strike zone, and you have to believe in the pitches that are put down there and you have to trust the catchers," Gardenhire said. "I think that's where he's at now. He's not a bobblehead out there anymore, shaking all the time."
Fatherhood has helped. Young sons Elijah and Easton have helped reform their worrywart daddy into a calm-as-can-be rock atop this young rotation.
"You're going to have some good days and some bad days," Baker said. "In the end, you just have to monitor it as a whole and not get too focused on a bad day. Just don't freak out and kind of roll with the punches."