Cubs' Baker sets his sights on showcasing his recovery

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Cubs' Baker sets his sights on showcasing his recovery

While the rest of the city is anxiously awaiting Derrick Rose's return to the hardwood, one new Chicagoan is just focusing on his own comeback.

The Cubs signed Scott Baker this winter to help build up the stable of starting pitching options, but the 31-year-old is just nine months removed from Tommy John surgery.

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With spring camp just around the corner, Baker has advanced in his rehab and started mound progression a few weeks ago. He has his sights set on being ready for the start of spring training, but is more focused on Opening Day.

"Hopefully I'll be able to jump in and go as all the other guys are going," Baker said at the 2013 Cubs Convention last weekend. "I don't know if the team will allow me to do that, but that's what I'm planning on doing.

"You can only go as fast as the protocol will let you. I have it mapped out to where I would be ready for spring training and the season. But obviously the start of the season is more important than spring training.

"As long as I feel good and I feel like I'm able to progress and don't have any setbacks, the plan is for me to be ready for the start of the season."

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Baker missed all of the 2012 season after surgery in April, which was a major change of pace for a guy used to taking the ball every fifth day.

Just as Rose is admitting his injury has helped him become a more cerebral player and build strength in areas he had ignored before, Baker sees the silver lining in his year off.

"I tried to utilize the time and not just go through the motions," he said. "You don't try to reinvent yourself, but you definitely try to get back to the basics and get back to the things that you know helped you be successful at the beginning.

"In saying that, you really focus on the mechanics and try to do things that are very easy to get away from over a career. You don't feel like you waste time doing that.

"Obviously, you have to put in the reps, do the strength training program, the throwing program and all that. You are more of a complete pitcher when you're finally through the rehab process."

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Tommy John surgery has become so commonplace in baseball today that it is no longer the death sentence it was once considered to a player's career. Players are rebounding faster (the typical recovery time sits around nine months) and coming back stronger than ever.

"I tell you what, it's kind of exciting to -- I don't want to say have a new arm, but -- have a tune-up and have the knowledge that I have knowing how to pitch," Baker said. "I know things are taken care of. I just have to concentrate on pitching. It just really makes you feel good and makes you feel ready for the season.

"We'll have to see. This is all good in theory, but when you get out there, it's a whole different ballgame. I'm doing the best I can with what I have. As long as I don't have any setbacks, I think it's going to be a lot of fun."

Baker was selected by the Minnesota Twins in the second round of the 2003 draft and has never known another organization. All 159 starts and seven seasons (eight if you include last year) of his big-league career have come in Minnesota.

But after signing a one-year deal worth 5.5 million -- plus another 1.5 million in incentives -- in Chicago, he's happy to be getting a chance with the big-market Cubs.

"I don't think there's any secret that the Chicago Cubs organization is really trying to do something special here with bringing in the great front office," Baker said. "There's a vision and everybody's buying into it, which is awesome. The Cubs organization is historical. There's only three or four organizations that have the same historical pedigree the Cubs do. It's just really cool. It's going to be a lot of fun.

"Everybody grew up watching the Cubs on WGN. That was the great thing about it -- being able to catch a ballgame after school. I'm excited that people back home are going to see the same thing. It's a great city for families. My wife likes it here, so it's a win-win situation."

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The Shreveport, La., native said he would be open to sticking around Chicago if he fit in the franchise's long-term plans. As for this year, Baker is just glad to have an opportunity to showcase his recovery.

The Cubs' dearth of starting pitching was exposed last season after Matt Garza went down with an injury and Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm were traded. Cubs brass set out to rectify that during this offseason, adding Edwin Jackson, Scott Feldman and Carlos Villanueva in addition to Baker.

Garza is on the fast track back from a stress reaction in his elbow and Jeff Samardzija will no longer be on an innings limit. And then there's Travis Wood, who put up a solid 4.27 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in 26 starts for the Cubs last season.

There simply won't be enough starts to go around and if all seven guys start the season healthy, somebody will have to be relegated to the bullpen.

Baker -- who owns a career 63-48 record with a 4.15 ERA and 1.26 WHIP -- isn't focusing on that, however. He's just trying to keep a handle on what he can control.

"The starting pitching depth is nice for the team and the organization. But as for me, I'm going to try to get ready as fast as my body and my arm will allow," Baker said. "That's just me being me.

"I'm going to go out there and do the best I can, regardless of the situation, regardless of how many guys are slated for the rotation. For me, all I can focus on is to get ready and to progress."

Kentucky Derby ripe for an upset

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Kentucky Derby ripe for an upset

We have been very lucky, and spoiled as racing fans in recent years as we’ve gotten to see great stories play out right in front of us on Derby day and beyond. From the upset victory of 50-1 shot Mine That Bird in 2009, to California Chrome winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 2014, to a Triple Crown winner last year in American Pharoah, we have seen a bit of everything.

This year’s edition of the Derby brings intrigue as well. The Derby favorite, Nyquist, rolls into Louisville riding a seven-race win streak. His connections have been here before, as owner J. Paul Reddam, trainer Doug O’Neill, and jockey Mario Gutierrez teamed up for the Derby win in 2012 with I’ll Have Another. Nyquist has done nothing wrong either, winning from on or near the lead when the pace is slow to closing from a bit further back when the early pace was swift.  Everything is lined up for Nyquist to continue his winning ways, but this year the Derby will provide one thing, a ton of value.

While Nyquist may be the only undefeated horse entering the starting gate in the Derby on Saturday afternoon, he may also be the only horse that goes off at odds of less than 10-1. With value galore, here are my top five selections for the 2016 Kentucky Derby:

1. #17 Mor Spirit (12-1 odds)

Trainer Bob Baffert has been here before also. He saddled American Pharoah to his Triple Crown last year. He has also sent out Derby winners Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), and War Emblem (2002). This year Mor Spirit flies under the radar. Never worse than second in seven lifetime races, Mor Spirit has the running style that may be most favorable this Saturday. While the early pace is unknown, the Derby does have its share of deep closers. Mor Spirit will likely sit in the second flight of horses early and avoid traffic late. He ran second in the slop at Churchill as a two-year-old, and has gone heavily favored in his three California starts this year, a win and pair of second-place efforts. With warmer conditions expected Saturday in Kentucky, and a chance of rain, each could benefit Mor Spirit.

2. #11 Exaggerator (8-1 odds)

Exaggerator is the one horse you will lose any type of value on should it rain Saturday. He has run three times on a wet track, winning twice, and finishing second in his other off track start. While he was extremely impressive in the Santa Anita Derby, he was also helped by suicidal early pace fractions ahead of him, which he likely won’t see in the Derby on Saturday. He benefits from a middle of the pack post draw and looks to get a similar trip to Mor Spirit. Not an overly quick workout horse in the morning, his final drill at Churchill on April 30 was a bit slower than some would have liked to have seen. That being said, he looks to be peaking at the right time and the 1-1/4 mile distance should be no issue for him.

3. #13 Nyquist (3-1 odds)

It’s tough in a 20-horse field to set a morning line, especially with so many talented runners, but I expect Nyquist to go off even lower than the 3-1 morning line he was set at. He hasn’t done anything wrong thus far on his career. He can win from on or off the pace and easily put away Mohaymen and the rest of the Florida Derby field in his last start. The concern for Nyquist could be if he is keen to go early and faces pace pressure. With possible speed horses like Mohaymen and Outwork breaking from the two gates just to his outside, and Danzing Candy with likely no choice but to send from post 20, jockey Mario Gutierrez will have to make his choice early on where he plans to place Nyquist. Nyquist also is one of the few that has neither raced, nor posted a workout over the Churchill surface entering the Derby.

4. #10 Whitmore (20-1 odds)

Some may question whether or not Whitmore is quick enough to compete in the Derby, but he has some things going for him entering Saturday’s race. First, he has won, and won impressively, at Churchill Downs. After a slow break in his debut, he crushed a field sprinting at Churchill last fall. He worked his way into the Derby by running second or third in the three Arkansas preps, and is likely to go off at odds of higher than his 20-1 morning line. Second, and possibly more important, is that Whitmore picks up the guy you want in the saddle on Derby Day in jockey Victor Espinoza. Espinoza looks to make it three Derby victories in a row and confidence in the saddle is no concern. Look for Whitmore to be weaving through traffic late.

5. #3 Creator (10-1 odds)

If Whitmore is going to be there in the end, odds are Creator will be as well. The horse that finished ahead of Whitmore in winning the Arkansas Derby, Creator is another that is peaking at the right time. The biggest concern for Creator may be his running style as he will likely be sitting somewhere between 17th-20th the first time the horses pass the finish line. He will need a clean trip, and a strong pace ahead of him to close into, but often times that occurs in the Derby. Sired by Tapit, Creator is one of the most well-bred horses in the field to handle the 1-1/4 mile distance.

How am I going to play the Derby?

I will play Mor Spirit, Exaggerator, and Whitmore all to win, as long as their odds are 10-1 or higher. I am going to put these five horses in an exacta and trifecta box as well. For a minimal amount of money, you can play a $1 exacta box, which will cost a total of $20, and a $1 trifecta box, which will cost $60.

A reminder, this weekend also kicks off summer harness racing action at Hawthorne. Live harness racing will take place this Friday and Saturday night with a 7:20 p.m. first post. Beginning next week, racing will take place every Thursday-Sunday at 7:20 p.m.

For those looking to wager on the Kentucky Derby, the doors at Hawthorne will open at 8:00 AM on Friday and Saturday morning as players can watch and wager races from Churchill and throughout the country all day long.

How far will you take it? - The Wrigley Field Ivy

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How far will you take it? - The Wrigley Field Ivy

Once spring slowly turns to summer in Chicago, the iconic ivy — which has been around since 1937 — begins to grow along the outfield bricks at Wrigley Field.

If not for daily maintenance from the groundskeepers, the ivy would cover up the distance markers, signage and even spread into the bleachers at the historic home of the Cubs.

Kelly Crull takes a ride around Wrigleyville in the all-new Toyota RAV4 Hybrid bringing you a special Cubs feature on the iconic ivy. Make sure to check back all summer long for more features!

Watch: Huskers' Tim Miles flies with Blue Angels, almost vomits

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Watch: Huskers' Tim Miles flies with Blue Angels, almost vomits

Well, it's going to be pretty difficult for college basketball to top this line this offseason.

"It's all dry heave, I can't puke."

Nebraska head basketball coach Tim Miles took a ride with the Blue Angels, a very cool and surely very frightening experience, and the fine folks with the Huskers were good enough to post a video of Miles' flight.

While watching the coach experience the take off and the rolls is very cool, there's perhaps no more entertaining moment than when he reaches for the barf bag.

Check it out:

Miles is without a doubt the Big Ten's funniest coach. No wonder he produced this kind of moment.

Great flight, coach!