Baker fighting mental, physical battles in return to mound

Baker fighting mental, physical battles in return to mound
March 8, 2013, 8:30 pm
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(Credit: AP Images)

MESA, Ariz. -- Scott Baker's return won't come with the intense anticipation that's followed Derrick Rose's comeback. It won't dominate discussion across the city of Chicago, and it won't vault the Cubs from pretenders to championship contenders in the minds of the fanbase. But the way the pitcher talks about his return to the mound is at least somewhat similar to the process of the Bulls' MVP winner.

"You definitely have to marry the physical and mental together, because there's a feeling where you trust it, you trust your ability to give it everything you got," Baker explained Friday. "There's no holding back, you're finishing all your pitches, you're trusting that the elbow's going to hold up, and you can tell yourself that all you want, but until you start letting it go and you don't have any adverse effects, generally there's nothing else you can do but fill that intensity and feel good about doing it."

Baker fared well in a simulated game Thursday, throwing two innings and getting his fastball up to 89 miles per hour. More importantly, his body responded well to the 31 pitches he threw.

[RELATED: Baker's simulated game is a success]

"Today was kind of a wait-and-see day how I felt afterwards, and I had pretty good indication yesterday how I felt coming off the mound that I'd be fine, which is the case today," Baker said. "I think I'm ready to move forward to the next step, and I believe that's a minor league game."

The right-hander will pitch every five days from here on out, barring a setback. If his minor league start goes well, he'll make his Cactus League debut after and could re-join the Cubs rotation in mid-to-late April, right around the time Matt Garza could potentially make his 2013 debut.

"It kind of solidifies a lot of things," manager Dale Sveum said. "If he comes back like the Baker we saw in Minnesota before he got hurt, and Garza comes back at about the same time you're looking at a pretty good starting pitching staff at that point if everybody's pitching up to their capabilities."

The Baker that Sveum and the rest of baseball saw in Minnesota enjoyed what he thought was on track to be a career year in 2011. He always thought a big year would come on the heels of a strong first half. In 2011, that finally happened, as the then right-hander posted a 3.01 ERA in 17 starts for the Twins before the All-Star break, limiting opposing hitters to a .678 OPS.

But after the All-Star break, Baker dealt with elbow tendinitis and only made four starts. Instead of shutting things down after his Aug. 8 start, he decided to try to come back as a reliever in September. He made a pair of relief appearances, with the last coming on Sept. 24, 2011.

"It got to a point where I just couldn't do it anymore, the tendinitis was so bad," Baker recalled Friday. "I took some time off and really wanted to finish the season healthy, so I could have a typical, normal, progressive offseason into 2012. So I did that. I worked extremely hard to make two relief appearances, and in hindsight, was that the wisest thing to do? Probably not. But we didn't know, nobody knew what was going on."

[MORE: Why the Cubs see Sveum as the right man for the job]

He hasn't pitched in a major league game since. He continued to battle tendinitis during spring training 2012, but in mid-April underwent Tommy John surgery, much to the surprise of many observers in Minnesota.

"In 2012, you get there and it was just matter of having that time off that you thought would make it better and have you come back to normal," Baker said. "But as the repetitions picked up and the intensity picked up, I was right back to where I was toward the end of 2011."

After nine years with the Twins' organization, Baker's recovery is coming with a different group. He trusted the Cubs' plan to get him back on the mound, and considered that a major selling point for a franchise that lost 101 games in 2012.

As of now, that plan has Baker right on schedule. His trust in his elbow is increasing, and that's a big part of his battle to return to a major league mound for the first time in well over a year.

"I think in a way you have to be confident it's going to be there," Baker said. "If you second-guess or doubt yourself or your abilities, I don't see in what way that's going to benefit you."