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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."

Jake Arrieta full of appreciation in return to Wrigley mound: ‘I’ll never forget this city’

Jake Arrieta full of appreciation in return to Wrigley mound: ‘I’ll never forget this city’

The last time Jake Arrieta pitched at Wrigley Field, his night ended with Cubs fans giving him a rousing standing ovation. The former Cubs right hander tossed 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball, leading the Cubs to victory in Game 4 of the 2017 NLCS—their only win against the Los Angeles Dodgers that series.

Arrieta returned to Wrigley Field as a visitor on Monday night, making his first start against the Cubs since joining the Philadelphia Phillies last season. Ironically, Arrieta’s counterpart for the night was Yu Darvish, who ultimately replaced Arrieta in the Cubs starting rotation.

Despite now donning Phillies red, Cubs fans once again showed their love for Arrieta, giving him a lengthy standing ovation ahead of his first plate appearance. Darvish even stepped off the mound in respect for the moment.

“I loved it, absolutely loved it,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said to reporters postgame. “[I’m] very happy that our fans would acknowledge him like that. Yu stepped away from the mound nicely. Jake deserved it.”

Arrieta tipped his helmet in appreciation for the crowd, taking in the moment for more than 30 seconds before stepping into the batter’s box. After the game, he told reporters that moment brought back memories of his time with the Cubs.

“That was something that really brought back great memories of getting that same sort of ovation pretty much on a nightly basis,” Arrieta said. “[I’m] very appreciative of that. I can’t say thank you enough to the city of Chicago, I really can’t.”

Arrieta took fans back to his Cubs tenure on Monday, throwing six innings of one run ball in the Phillies’ 5-4 10-inning win. Although the 33-year-old didn’t pick up the victory, he matched Darvish—who threw six innings of three-run ball—pitch by-pitch.

Phillies manager Gabe Kapler noted how well Arrieta handled his emotions throughout the night.

“I thought he handled the emotions really well. I thought he was in control of the game even when we were down,” Kapler said to reporters. “He always maintained his poise and he just got stronger as the outing went on and that’s why we were able to have him take down the sixth inning for us.”

It’s well-documented how Arrieta’s career improved for the better after the Cubs acquired him in a trade with the Baltimore Orioles in July 2013. When the Cubs acquired him, Arrieta held a career 5.46 ERA in 69 games (63 starts). He finished his Cubs career with a 2.73 ERA in 128 regular season starts. He also won five postseason games with the Cubs, including Games 2 and 6 of the 2016 World Series.

Despite moving on in free agency, Arrieta spoke highly of his time with the Cubs, their fans and the city of Chicago.

“Cubs fans all across the country, all across the world, they really respect and appreciate what guys are able to do here for them,” he said. “It means a lot, it really does.

"I’ll never forget this city, the fan base, the organization, everything that they did for me. It was 4 1/2 incredible years of my career.”

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Yu Darvish crashed Jake Arrieta's party, but Cubs bullpen falters

Yu Darvish crashed Jake Arrieta's party, but Cubs bullpen falters

Yu Darvish was one pitch away.

Holding onto a 1-0 lead with two outs in the sixth inning, Darvish threw Phillies catcher JT Realmuto a 2-2 cutter. It made sense - Darvish had been spotting that pitch well all night, and the Phillies were averaging a paltry 79.8 mph exit velocity against it.

With one strike standing between Darvish and a 6-inning shutout, Realmuto took Darvish’s cutter and sent it back up the middle for a game-tying RBI single. A 2-RBI triple from César Hernández followed. In the blink of an eye, what was shaping up to be one of Darvish’s finest moments in Chicago was instead reduced to yet another start spent searching for silver linings.

“Really good. He was outstanding tonight,” Joe Maddon said. “He pitched really well.

“He had really good stuff. He had command of his stuff, he had command of himself. I thought he was outstanding - even better than what he looked like in Cincinnati. I thought that was probably his best game for us to date.”

Darvish has continued to lean heavily on his cutter this season, more so than any year prior. After throwing it 13 percent of the time last season, he’s going to that pitch almost 25 percent of the time now. If that holds, it’d beat his previous career-high, set in 2013, by six percentage points.

All things considered, that pitch has actually been good for him this season. It’s his go-to offering when he needs to induce weak contact, and batters are hitting .125 against it so far. He gets batters to chase cutters 29.5 percent of the time, the most of any pitch he throws. While he has admitted in games past that he relies too heavily on his fastball, Maddon sees no issues with the new trend.

“I have no concerns with that whatsoever,” he said. “There’s different ways for pitchers to attack hitters, and if it's successful, I really would not change a whole lot.”

Though the night was dedicated to celebrating one of the franchises most beloved pitchers, it was one of their most maligned that continued to show signs of figuring it out. He’s put together back-to-back starts with three or less walks for the first time this season, and has allowed two or less runs in three of the last five.

The pitcher even stepped off the mound during Arrieta’s first at-bat, in order to let the standing ovation continue on.

“He’s is a legend in Chicago,” Darvish said after the game. “And I pitched against him and pitched pretty good, so it makes me confident.”

The bullpen again struggled on Monday night, as the trio of Mike Montgomery, Brad Brach, and Kyle Ryan allowed two runs on five hits, including the game-winning solo home run from Realmuto in the 10th. For a moment it looked like the Cubs had a win wrapped up when Brach got outfielder Andrew McCutchen to bite on a two-strike slider, but was (probably incorrectly) called a checked swing.  He would eventually draw a walk, leading to Jean Segura’s game-tying single.

“On the field, I thought for sure [that McCutchen swung],” Brach said. “Looking at the first base umpire, I was a little taken aback. That’s why I went off the mound - just to regather myself, because I didn’t want to let the emotion get to me there.

“It’s a 50-50 call, and unfortunately it didn’t go my way.”

 

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