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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."

Breaking down where Cubs can turn NLCS around and beat L.A.

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USA TODAY

Breaking down where Cubs can turn NLCS around and beat L.A.

“Sometimes, you got to lay your marbles out there,” Jon Lester said Sunday night inside Dodger Stadium’s visiting clubhouse, before the Cubs flew home from Los Angeles down 0-2 in the National League Championship Series. “And you get beat.”

It will be extremely difficult for the Cubs to win four of the next five games against the Dodgers, starting Tuesday night at Wrigley Field. But the Cubs had the, uh, marbles to win last year’s World Series and have developed the muscle memory from winning six playoff rounds and playing in 33 postseason games since October 2015.

There is a cross section left of the 2015 team that beat the Pittsburgh Pirates and silenced PNC Park’s blackout crowd in a sudden-death wild-card game. While 2016 is seen in hindsight as a year of destiny, those Cubs still had to kill the myths about the even-year San Francisco Giants, survive a 21-inning scoreless streak against the Dodgers and win Games 5, 6, 7 against the Cleveland Indians under enormous stress.

There is at least a baseline of experience to draw from and the sense that the Cubs won’t panic and beat themselves, the way the Washington Nationals broke down in the NL Division Series.

· Remember the Cubs pointed to how their rotation set up as soon as Cleveland took a 3-1 lead in last year’s World Series: Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks would each give them a chance to win that night. The Dodgers will now have to deal with last year’s major-league ERA leader (Hendricks) in Game 3 and a Cy Young Award winner (Arrieta) on Wednesday night in Game 4.

“Obviously, we know we need to get wins at this point,” Hendricks said. “But approaching it as a must-win is a little extreme. We've just got to go out there and play our brand of baseball.

“Since we accomplished that, we know we just have to take it game by game. Even being down 3-1 (in the World Series), we worry about the next game. In that situation, we didn’t think we had to win three in a row or anything like that. We just came to the ballpark the next day and worried about what we had to do that day.”

· The history lessons only go so far when the Dodgers can line up Yu Darvish as their Game 3 starter instead of, say, Josh Tomlin. There is also a huge difference between facing a worn-down Cleveland staff in late October/early November and a rested Dodger team that clinched a division title on Sept. 22 and swept the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first round. Joe Blanton and Pedro Baez aren’t walking through that bullpen door, either.

“We’ve done it before. We’ve been there before,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “But this year’s a new year. That’s a different ballclub. We’re definitely going to have to bring it.”

· Outside of Kenley Jansen, can you name anyone else in the Los Angeles bullpen off the top of your head? No doubt, the Dodger relievers have been awesome in Games 1 and 2 combined: Eight scoreless innings, zero hits, zero walks and Anthony Rizzo the only one out of 25 batters to reach base when Jansen hit him with a 93.7-mph pitch.

But the Dodgers are going to make mistakes, and the Cubs will have to capitalize. Unless this is the same kind of synthesis from the 2015 NLCS, when the New York Mets used exhaustive scouting reports, power pitching and pinpoint execution to sweep a Cubs team that had already hit the wall.

“Their bullpen is a lot stronger than it was last year,” Kris Bryant said. “They’re really good at throwing high fastballs in the zone. A lot of other teams try to, and they might hit it one out of every four. But this team, it seems like they really can hammer the top of the zone. And they have guys that throw in the upper 90s, so when you mix those two, it’s tough to catch up.”

· Bryant is not having a good October (5-for-28 with 13 strikeouts) and both Lester and Jose Quintana have more hits (one each) than Javier Baez (0-for-19 with eight strikeouts) during the playoffs. But we are still talking about the reigning NL MVP and last year’s NLCS co-MVP.

Ben Zobrist is clearly diminished and no longer the switch-hitting force who became last year’s World Series MVP. Kyle Schwarber doesn’t have the same intimidation factor or playoff aura right now. But one well-timed bunt from Zobrist or a “Schwarbomb” onto the video board could change the entire direction of this series and put the pressure on a Dodger team that knows this year is World Series or bust.

“We need to hit a couple balls hard consecutively,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Once we’re able to do that, we’ll gain our offensive mojo back. That's all that’s going on.

“I inherited something from my dad, and that was patience. So you’ve got to be patient right now. You’ve got to keep putting the boys back out there. You keep believing in them, and eventually it comes back to you.”

· Maddon is a 63-year-old man who opened Monday’s stadium club press conference at Wrigley Field by talking about dry-humping, clearly annoyed by all the second-guessers on Twitter and know-it-all sports writers who couldn’t believe All-Star closer Wade Davis got stranded in the bullpen, watching the ninth inning of Sunday’s 1-1 game turn into a 4-1 walk-off loss.

By the time a potential save situation develops on Tuesday night, roughly 120 hours will have passed since Davis threw his 44th and final pitch at Nationals Park, striking out Bryce Harper to end an instant classic. Just guessing that Maddon will be in the mood to unleash Davis.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should the Bears let Mitch Trubisky throw more?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should the Bears let Mitch Trubisky throw more?

Adam Jahns (Chicago Sun-Times), Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Cornette (The U/ESPN 1000) join Kap on the panel. Justin Turner hits a walk-off 3-run HR off of John Lackey to give the Dodgers a 2-0 lead in the NLCS. So why was Lackey even in the game? How much blame should Joe Maddon get for the loss?

The Bears run the ball over and over and over again to beat the Ravens in overtime, but should they have let Mitch Trubisky throw the ball more?