Those accustomed to seeing Scott Baker hit his stride after the All-Star break saw signs that he is peaking way ahead of schedule.
Scott Baker has been the Twins' best pitcher this season by a wide margin, so the team must hope his calendar isn't confused.
The righthander usually does his finest work after the All-Star break.
Baker continued his impressive first half Wednesday, piling up nine strikeouts and only one walk in 7 1/3 innings, as the Twins hung on to defeat the Dodgers 1-0 at Target Field.
"It's probably the best I've seen him throw," said Joe Mauer, who first caught Baker in 2005. "He's always had a great fastball, kind of sneaky, but he's throwing his curveball and his changeup real well, so it's great to see him put it all together."
Baker is 6-5 with a 3.15 ERA, and the record would look better if the bullpen hadn't blown late-inning leads in five of his starts. He has 101 strikeouts, 40 more than any other Twins pitcher.
This is what the Twins envisioned when they gave him his four-year, $15.25 million contract in March 2009. Baker entered the All-Star break that year at 7-7 with a 5.42 ERA, but went 8-2 with a 3.28 ERA after the break.
Last year, Baker had a similar midseason turnaround, going 5-1 with a 3.82 ERA after the break, but he had bone chips in his right elbow and was limited to 11 second-half starts. He had arthroscopic surgery right after the postseason, and now his elbow feels like new.
"That's huge," Baker said. "I had a couple of cortisone injections last year. Those make you feel pretty good for a little while, but those are obviously just temporary fixes, just treating the symptoms instead of the problem."
A healthy arm has helped Baker add finish to his pitches. As Nick Blackburn saw in Monday's 15-0 loss, the Dodgers can be aggressive early in the count, especially against fastballs.
Baker faced 29 batters and started 15 of them with sliders or changeups.
"Joe [Mauer] did a great job, getting me to throw my offspeed pitches," Baker said.
The Twins gave Baker a first-inning lead when Ben Revere hit a leadoff triple, scoring on Tsuyoshi Nishioka's slow bouncer to pitcher Rubby De La Rosa. The hard-throwing Los Angeles rookie stymied the Twins after that, so Baker had to be sharp, and he was.
Baker threw a career-high 119 pitches (87 for strikes) before Glen Perkins came on for two big strikeouts -- against Dodgers stars Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp -- to end the eighth inning. Matt Capps pitched the ninth for his 13th save in 18 chances.
Baker was at 108 pitches when the Twins sent him back for the eighth inning.
"He kind of talked us into it," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He really wanted to go back out, said he felt great."
Gardenhire said it helped knowing Baker would get an extra day of rest before his next start because of Thursday's off day. But it's another sign Baker is feeling strong as he approaches his 30th birthday (Sept. 19).
Baker is 3-1 with a 1.45 ERA in his past four starts.
"Whatever he's doing, I hope he keeps on doing it," Mauer said.
Joe Christensen • firstname.lastname@example.org
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