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Performer Mayyadda singing at the University of Minnesota Juneteenth Celebration “We Are The Noise: The Echoes of Our Ancestors” captured on Saturday, June 15.
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Published June 23, 2024

Scott Baker has quickly become top starter for Twins

With the loss of Johan Santana, the Twins are looking for an ace to fill the void.

>FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) -For the first time in a decade, most people outside of Minnesota will have probably never heard of the pitcher the Twins send to the mound on opening day.

This is the beginning of life after Johan Santana for the Twins and their renovated rotation, which is starting over this spring with a number of candidates more than doubling the amount of spots available.

Scott Baker suddenly has found himself at the front of the line, and it’s a bit surprising to him, too.

“Your first objective is to get to the big leagues, and your next objective is to establish yourself. It’s not something that really crosses your mind, to be that opening day starter, but if the opportunity presents itself I’m definitely going to be ready for it,” Baker said.

Last year, he was cut with a week left in camp and spent the first six weeks of the season in Triple-A.

“I think they knew even when they sent me down last year. They know what I’m capable of doing. It’s just a matter of being able to repeat that,” Baker said.

He was high on Minnesota’s list before, until he was battered for 17 homers and a 6.37 ERA over 16 starts and 83-plus innings in 2006. Baker needed a full year to regain the faith of the Twins, who decided they were better off last season signing Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson for minimal veteran money; Ponson was released in mid-May and Ortiz was sent to the bullpen two weeks later.

Consistently keeping his fastball low in the strike zone has been an important part of Baker’s process, but a better mental approach has had a greater impact, he said. Two sons, born in the summers of 2005 and 2007, have added perspective as well.

“It’s very easy to get caught up in a lot of the logistics of the game and try to be so stat-oriented,” Baker said. “Really, all you’re in control of is doing your absolute best. That’s what I tried to get back to. I put in every amount of preparation I could and then allowed myself to go out there and have a good time. It was definitely a turning point.”

Though there were several rough outings, Baker showed renewed confidence and made clear progress from the previous year after his promotion from the minors to replace Ponson. His sinker led to more groundballs, and he improved his putaway curveball.

Baker finished 9-9 with a 4.26 ERA and threw two complete games, including the near-perfect game he ended August with: a one-hit, one-walk shutout of the Kansas City Royals.

“I didn’t see that huge of a difference as far as how he pitched or anything,” closer Joe Nathan said. “I think we already saw signs of him getting better and improving, especially with how he went out and handled his business on the mound. That definitely was a spot that he kind of made a name for himself and showed that he could step up and pitch in the bigger games and become a front-line guy.”

General manager Bill Smith wouldn’t second-guess the additions of Ortiz and Ponson, due to the extra time it allowed Baker and others to develop. The 26-year-old Baker, who is 6-foot-4 and from Louisiana, was drafted in 2003 and made it to the majors two years later.

“Maybe there are some facets of player development that have not been developed to their fullest,” Smith said. He added: “Sometimes it’s good for them to go down, get a taste of that big-league atmosphere, and when they get back to Triple-A they’re a little more focused.”

Until the Twins signed Livan Hernandez to a one-year contract last week, Baker and Boof Bonser had the most experience with 48 major league starts apiece. Manager Ron Gardenhire has always avoided officially labeling his starters one through five, but Baker will have as realistic of an opportunity as anyone to take the ball against former teammate Torii Hunter and the Anaheim Angels at the Metrodome on March 31.

That used to be Santana’s job, and Brad Radke’s before him.

The last time the Twins didn’t have a clear ace was in 1998, when Radke was about to become just that and Bob Tewksbury was the opening day starter.

“We have some good arms, and we’re more than capable of going out and doing well,” Baker said.

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