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Scott Baker's One Bad Inning of Seven: Twins Lose to Royals

Alex BrownContributor IMay 4, 2009

FORT MYERS, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 23: Scott Baker #30 of the Minnesota Twins poses during photo day at the Twins spring training complex February 23, 2008 in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Rob Tringali/Getty Images)

You’re not a little kid any more, so you know better. No-hitters don’t happen often, and you need take no superstitious steps to preserve this one.

You’re not going to get caught up in all that, particularly after Scott Baker blots his canvas with a walk to lead off the second inning. All he has going is a no-hitter, not a perfect game.

Don’t start dreaming about it, because it’s perfectly fine that the Twins have gotten a 4-0 lead by the simple process of taxing the Royals’ Gil Meche for a handful of hits.

The Twins start off smartly, with Denard Span getting a leadoff walk and then stealing second. Span is 7-for-7 in steal attempts.

A brief digression: the stolen base is a mainstay in the Twins run-scoring architecture, and it has its detractors. Stealing a base is adding risk, and there are cogent theories about the dangers outweighing the results.

These arguments are correct as far as they go. The value in base-stealing is not speed, or daring, or attempts. The value is success rate. You can have Rickey Henderson’s jets but if you’re thrown out more than 25 percent of the time, you’re hurting the team. Span, let us note, is perfect so far.

Courtesy of a Justin Morneau single, his stolen base results in a run to put the Twins up 1-0 as Scott Baker comes to the mound for his fourth start of the season. In two of the three previous outings, our ace didn’t get past the fourth inning, but everyone is willing to chalk that up to rehab creakiness from a late start to his season. Any day now.

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For six calm innings, the day has finally come. Baker confined the Royals to ineffectual at-bats, mostly fly balls, and kept Justin Morneau at first and Brian Buscher at third busy catching fouls.

Finishing the second trip through the order takes a valiant running catch from Michael Cuddyer in right and a big-league lunge from Delmon Young, but the principal fuel for the game is Baker’s approach to each hitter.

From the very first inning I notice that something has changed for him and it doesn’t look like an improvement. With most batters, he begins by planting a fastball low and away. Lefties or righties, he’s going to look for the edge past the strike zone. Next pitch is often another toss in the same area.

Instantly behind 2-0, Baker then begins mixing up his pitches and locations. He evens out the count and then induces a harmless fly ball. And there’s your out, earned in all the most scary ways, but Baker seems in control of sequence by the end.

Baker motors along, retiring 15 straight, and his teammates take the time to do a little scoring in the bottom of the sixth. It even seems they drag it out, to give Baker a little longer rest on the bench. Including an RBI and steals of second and third by Michael Cuddyer and a Delmon Young RBI single, the Twins score two runs; added to lone scores in the first and fourth, they’re up 4-0.

In the top of the seventh, with about 80 pitches under his belt, Baker starts the seventh. I’m trying to fight off the little thrill of possibility here just as Willie Bloomquist leads off with a single. The no-hit bid dissolves into the dust a foul tip raises by home plate. Pfffft.

Now Baker does a very good impression of a man hitting a wall. It’s not easy to let go of a no-hitter, but pro pitchers have spent their careers with dashed hopes. Yes, Baker may be stung a little harder by the fact that he had a no-hitter going into the ninth two years ago against these same Royals, but he’s going to shake it off. Right?

Wrong. Mark Teahen gets a single. Then Jose Guillen blasts a three-run homer, high into the right field wall.

The no-hitter’s gone, and so is the shutout, and after Baker gives up two more singles and Luis Ayala, in relief, can’t keep them from scoring, so is the lead.

Scoring five runs after being held hitless for about two hours is more proof that this year’s Royals are ready to stay in games. No more phoning it in—this team wants to play the games.

The remarkable thing in today’s game was how quickly and completely the balance shifted. Baker had the game in hand, however improbable his approach to the batters might have appeared. He was not only overcoming the Royals, he was reasserting his season after a shaky start.

The Twins looked ready to collect Baker’s first win, with a chance to advance a tad in the division and take the series 2-1. Instead, over the course of a handful of miserable pitches, Baker gave up three runs before our eyes and left two on for Ayala to allow in.

It was sudden and shocking, like a tornado touching down. In some ways, it didn’t seem real that this lovely structure would be blown down, but the Twins could not answer back and took a loss.

For all its slow pace and tiny elements, a baseball game can unravel faster than you fear.

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