After long road back, Scott Baker is ready for whatever comes next

After long road back, Scott Baker is ready for whatever comes next
September 8, 2013, 4:00 pm
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Tony Andracki

This may be a lost season for the Chicago Cubs, but for Scott Baker, a meaningless game against the fourth-place Milwaukee Brewers on the NFL's Opening Day meant so much more.

It's been a long road back for Baker, who started his first big-league game in more than two years Sunday after undergoing Tommy John surgery in April 2012.

The 31-year-old righty was on his game, firing five shutout innings for the Cubs (60-82), allowing only two hits and one walk while dialing his fastball up to 87-89 mph, putting to rest some concerns about his velocity after sitting in the low-80s in eight rehab starts.

Junior Lake put Baker in line for the win with a solo home run in the bottom of the fifth inning, but the Cubs bullpen couldn't hold the lead, surrendering three runs to the Milwaukee Brewers (62-80) in the seventh inning of a 3-1 loss in front of an announced crowd of 27,802 at Wrigley Field.

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"It felt very good. There were some emotions there. I was happy my family was here to share this moment. They're just as much a part of this as I am," said Baker, whose wife, three kids, parents and mother-in-law were all in attendance.

"The rehab process is hard on everyone, not just the player themselves. It's been a long road. That definitely plays into it being a very special day for me and my family."

Dale Sveum said Saturday Baker would not be on an innings limit, but his pitch count would not exceed 100. That plan changed a bit Sunday, as the pitch limit fell to 75, but Baker didn't come close, needing only 55 pitches -- 39 strikes -- to get through his five innings.

With his spot due up third in the bottom of the fifth inning, Sveum opted to go with a pinch-hitter to help jumpstart the offense.

"He did a great job his first time out and we'll leave it at that," Sveum said. "We'll evaluate going forward."

Baker said he felt fine physically when he came out, but would have liked to stay in the game longer, even if he understood where Sveum and the Cubs coaching staff were coming from.

"It doesn't do a lot of good to put up too much fuss," Baker said. "I told them I felt fine, but that was the decision they made."

Baker, whose last MLB start came Aug. 8, 2011 with the Minnesota Twins, didn't put up a fuss after his rehab concluded, but he did petition for a chance to start.

The Cubs are on the fast track to a third straight 90-loss season and already have five capable starters all under 30 years old, but complied anyway, giving Baker his shot after signing the veteran to a one-year, $5.5 million deal in the offseason.

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"I understand there are guys here fighting for jobs next year and as much as they want to pitch, I'm sure the staff and the front office want to get looks at everybody," Baker said. "Of course, I would have liked to have been here the whole year and have this not be the situation, but I'm a realist and I realize it is what it is.

"So whether it's an inning here or there or another start, I'm going to do the best I can."

With only three weeks left in the season, Baker can't get too caught up focusing on just this year after all the work he's put in to get his career back on track. He said he isn't sure if he will be back with the Cubs in 2014, but there was mutual interest between the two sides just last month.

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"Right now, beggars can't be choosers," he said. "I was very thankful they gave me the opportunity to start. They didn't have to do that, but they did.

"They kind of left it up to me if I wanted to continue this process and I told them 'I feel like I have something to give and the only way to get there is to continue to pitch the rest of the season and then have a nice, long, productive offseason.'

"I didn't really have that last year. It was basically a rehab process all the way through. I really feel like having a dedicated amount of rest and recovery will put me back in line to be ready for next year."

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Sveum said no decision has been made about keeping Baker in the rotation moving forward. The current five starters -- Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, Edwin Jackson, Jake Arreita, Chris Rusin -- aren't going anywhere and while the idea has been floated of using a six-man rotation, it's not something Sveum is ready to commit to just yet.

"I'm not going to say yes or not to that right now," he said. "We'll talk about it and see how he feels the next couple days."

Baker would like more opportunities to start and improve his stock heading into another winter of free agency, but the decision is out of his hands.

"I feel fine. I don't know what's next," he said. "I'm just going to come in and do my conditioning and do what I normally do.

"It was fun today. We just have to see what happens after this."