PHOENIX – The Beatles song “Help!” rang out from the Phoenix Municipal Stadium sound system as Cubs bench coach Jamie Quirk tapped Scott Baker and took the ball from him.
Baker wanted to see how he’d react under these conditions and the Oakland A’s drew a crowd of 7,184 spotted in varying shades of green for a St. Patrick’s Day matinee. He walked off the mound after facing six hitters in a 12-6 loss, another step in his recovery from Tommy John surgery.
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The Cubs already had Casey Coleman warming up in the bullpen when Chris Young, Oakland’s No. 3 hitter, lifted a ball over the left-field fence for a three-run homer in the first inning.
“Trust me, there were some nerves,” Baker said. “I haven’t done it in awhile. That’s a good thing. It means I still love this game and enjoy pitching and want to compete. At the same time, you have to combat those feelings and still make good pitches.”
The last time Baker pitched in a major-league game was Sept. 24, 2011, which doesn’t seem that long ago, until you realize that might as well be an eternity in baseball.
Remember that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were running the Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres back then, while Dale Sveum was the Milwaukee Brewers hitting coach. Baker didn’t throw a single pitch for the Minnesota Twins during the 2012 season. But the new management team at Clark and Addison saw his upside as a buy-low rotation piece.
The Cubs didn’t hesitate and had Baker signed by mid-November last year. The 31-year-old right-hander came across as someone who’s serious about his craft, curious enough to want to know the whys behind his rehab and savvy enough to execute the game plans designed by the coaching staff.
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The final line looked ugly on Sunday afternoon – with Baker getting one out and giving up three runs on three hits and two walks – but this was his Cactus League debut. The Cubs are hoping he’ll only miss roughly the first two weeks of the season.
“That’s still the plan,” Baker said. “Nothing’s changed. I’m scheduled to start every fifth day and obviously that’s up to the medical staff to make those decisions (along with) the coaching staff.
“(But) as long as I continue to progress and build the pitch count up, then we’re still shooting for that mid-April timeframe.”
The Cubs are already planning to open the season with 40 percent of their projected rotation on the disabled list. Matt Garza (lat) played catch again on Sunday, but Sveum doesn’t expect him pitching in the majors before May, and that’s assuming no more setbacks or elbow problems.
Health is a big X-factor for this team. Third baseman Ian Stewart – whose entire body of work this spring is a few at-bats in an intrasquad scrimmage and a minor-league game – is supposed to get another MRI for his quadriceps injury, making Opening Day an even more remote possibility.
Baker’s guaranteed $5.5 million, with incentives built into a one-year deal that could be worth $1.5 million. That’s the price of pitching today. It could be a relative bargain if he approximates the pitcher who made at least 28 starts every year between 2008 and 2010, during which time the Twins won two division titles and lost a Game 163 to the White Sox.
This again showed it’s going to be a long road back. Baker underwent ligament-replacement surgery on April 17 last year, which makes mid-April this season the logical target date.
“There are plenty of guys that have come back in a year and done exceptionally well,” Baker said. “I’m hoping to prove to them I can be that guy.”