Twins pitcher Scott Baker retired the first 24 Royals he faced before settling for a one-hit, one-walk gem.
Scott Baker was an afterthought when the Twins reported to spring training, even though the biggest story was the starting pitching staff and its myriad concerns.
He began the season at Class AAA Rochester and seemed forgotten behind other blue-chip pitching prospects such as Matt Garza, Kevin Slowey and Glen Perkins.
But on Friday night at the Metrodome, Baker emerged from the shadows once and for all, coming within three outs of the first nine-inning perfect game in team history, as the Twins defeated the Kansas City Royals 5-0 in the second game of a day-night doubleheader.
Baker had to settle for the 15th one-hitter in team history, after walking John Buck to start the ninth inning and surrendering a one-out single to Mike Sweeney.
"I made the right pitch," Baker said of the sinker Sweeney muscled to center field. "It just wasn't meant to be tonight."
Still, the Twins earned a memorable doubleheader split after a 9-4 loss in Game 1.
"I think we just went from the worst game we played all year to almost perfect," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "That was a great performance by Scott Baker. We needed that. He's the whole story."
After retiring the first 24 batters, Baker (8-6) might have missed in his bid for the 18th nine-inning perfect game in major league history, but he entrenched himself as a force in the Twins rotation.
An announced crowd of 24,986 began rising to its feet with each out in the seventh inning, urging Baker toward history.
The only Twins pitcher to finish a game without allowing anyone to reach base was Dean Chance on Aug. 6, 1967, and that 2-0 victory over Boston was shortened to five innings, so it's not on MLB's official list of perfect games.
Baker finished with 111 pitches -- 81 strikes, 30 balls.
Despite that command, his bid for perfection ended with a five-pitch walk to Buck. He fell behind in the count 3-0, threw a strike and then another ball.
"I thought the first one was borderline, but the umpire [Jim Wolf] did a fantastic job," Baker said.
The walk actually ended a streak of 38 consecutive Royals batters retired for Baker, dating to his start vs. Kansas City on July 30. He retired the final 14 batters he faced in that 3-1 victory.
Baker, 25, said he wasn't overly nervous for the ninth inning and he didn't think the walk rattled him.
When Joey Gathright hit into a fielder's choice, Baker was two outs from the sixth no-hitter in Twins history. The last came from Eric Milton against the Angels on Sept. 11, 1999.
And, oh yes, Baker knew he was close. "Personally, I know every hit I give up," he said. "From the first inning on, I know if I'm giving up hits or not."
Baker had given up 29 hits in his previous three starts, including 14 against Seattle on Aug. 21, showing just how unlikely this performance was.
Royals manager Buddy Bell sent the veteran Sweeney up to pinch hit for Tony Pena Jr. Sweeney had come off the disabled list between games. This was the Royals captain's first at-bat since July 21.
After taking a called strike, Sweeney got jammed by Baker's sinker but fisted the pitch on a looping arc to center field.
"It's been so long since I've had a hit in the big leagues, I was going to ask him for the ball," Sweeney said.
Baker did a little hop step when Sweeney's ball landed, but he remained poised enough to retire David DeJesus and Mark Grudzielanek, ending the game.
Afterward, Baker kept it all in perspective. He returned from Rochester in May and has gone 7-4 in his past 14 starts. Last week, his wife gave birth to the couple's second child, and he was flying to Louisiana between starts.
"I don't think he could be any higher than he is right now," Gardenhire said. "We're very happy for him. He's a big part of our rotation right now, throwing the ball very, very well."
|Utah Valley U||64|
|(5) South Carolina||67|
|(14) NC State||79|
|(11) Penn State||82|
|(2) Notre Dame||83|
|(19) Michigan State||61|
|(13) North Carolina||73||FINAL|
|(15) Texas A&M||86|
|San Diego State||46||FINAL|
|San Jose St||80||FINAL|