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Baker spins one-hitter after near no-no

Baker flirts with perfection

MINNEAPOLIS -- Scott Baker took a perfect game into the ninth inning on Friday night at the Metrodome and was then just two outs from a no-hitter, but that wasn't even the most notable development for him this week.

Baker chalked that up to the birth of his second son, Easton, who was born in Shreveport, La., late last Friday night. Easton was born five weeks premature, and Baker has been traveling back and forth to Louisiana due to the birth, his last start, and his bullpen sessions. Earlier this week, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire was not even sure that Baker would be the starter for the second game of the Twins' doubleheader against the Royals on Friday.

But Baker got the nod, and was spot on from the first batter to the last. The righty attributed his greatness to the distracting events of the past week.

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"It was just one of those nights," Baker said. "I know a lot's been going on, and it just keeps things in perspective. Once you get things in perspective, it just makes this game more fun than anything."

He fanned nine and threw 111 pitches -- 81 for strikes -- in the 5-0, Twins victory, which lasted just two hours and 16 minutes. It was his first career nine-inning shutout. Baker had the crowd on its feet, cheering for the first time with two outs in the seventh inning, and it pretty much stayed that way for the rest of his performance.

"I was just enjoying the moment like everyone else," Gardenhire said. "You don't want to do anything. You don't want to change your seat. I was getting a drink of water about twice per inning, and I didn't want to change that either, so I'm full of water now. I just kept trying to do the same thing over and over again and not talking to anybody. We kept looking at each other, going '[T]his is good stuff.' That's very exciting."

The 25-year-old walked John Buck on five pitches to lead off the ninth inning, ending his chance to pitch the 18th perfect game in Major League history. He got the next batter, Esteban German, to ground into a force out.

But it was Mike Sweeney, the face of the Kansas City franchise, who kept the Royals from being a footnote in baseball history. Sweeney, who was only activated from the disabled list prior to the game, came in as a pinch-hitter, and, after taking a fastball for a strike, jammed the second pitch he saw into short left-center field to break up Baker's chance at immortality.

Near no-no's in 2007
No-hit bids that were broken up in the ninth inning in 2007:
Aug. 31: Scott Baker, Twins vs. Royals; Mike Sweeney one-out single to left field.
June 24: Dustin McGowan, Jays vs. Rockies; Jeff Baker leadoff single to center field.
June 7: Curt Schilling, Red Sox vs. A's; Shannon Stewart two-out single to right field.
-- The Associated Press
"I talked to Billy [Butler] and Grud [Mark Grudzielanek] and some of the guys, and asked them what he'd been throwing. And they said, '[N]othing over the middle of the plate. Fastballs in, sliders and cutters away,'" Sweeney said. "So he tried doubling up on the fastball in and, you know, it caught some artificial turf."

Baker, never overly emotional and always deflecting credit, was gracious when speaking of Sweeney after the game.

"He's a quality hitter -- he has been for a long time. I guess if there's one guy that could do it, it's him," Baker said. "I made the right pitch. It might have been a little up and he put a decent swing on it, and it worked out for him."

Eschewing superstitions, Baker said he was never worried or nervous. He did not sit by himself in the dugout between innings in silence -- as is customary for pitchers working on no-hitters -- he was actually seeking out companions.

"I really wasn't worried, to be honest. If it's in God's will, it's in God's will. If it's not, it's not. I was just trying to do the best I can. Make quality pitches, and leave it up to them."

Before Sweeney's single, Baker had retired 38 consecutive Kansas City batters dating back to his last start on July 30 at the Metrodome.

The usually-reserved pitcher broke into a huge smile at the end of the game, hugged all his teammates and coaches, and even took his cap off and energetically waved to the roaring fans as he walked off the field.

It's just another chapter in the metamorphosis of Baker, who signed with the Twins in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft. In his first two Major League seasons, Baker was known for losing focus and shaking off his catchers.

"I've come to appreciate everything that happens to me, because everything happens for a reason," Baker said of his previous struggles. "If you never go through things, how will you learn to persevere or overcome things? I appreciate everything that's happened to me in my career so far, because there's no doubt it's made me stronger -- spiritually and mentally."

Gardenhire has seen a different Baker out there on the mound since the beginning of this season. It's something the manager has commented on all season, believing that confidence was the key all along for Baker.

"He's learned a lot. Even in Spring Training, he said he was going to quit worrying about everything. He was going to get the ball, look to the glove, and throw it," Gardenhire said. "I think he shook off one time in the first four innings. You used to see him out there and the game dragged. It's not there anymore. He understands the game, trusts the catchers, and trusts his pitches."

And those pitches delivered for Baker on Friday. He used his reliable fastball, but his saving grace was being able to get his breaking pitches over for strikes.

"He kept guys off balance. It was close. I could feel it," Twins catcher Mike Redmond said. "He got some guys to swing at some borderline, marginal pitches, which is what enables him to be out there in the ninth. It was a good job."

It was the closest either in the tandem has been to perfection. Baker said he thinks he may have gotten close in Double-A ball, but never has been this perfect. Redmond has been close, but this was the first no-hitter he'd caught going into the ninth inning.

"He just kept breezing, getting some quick outs," Redmond said. "To walk out there in the ninth with the chance at a no-hitter, that was pretty amazing. That doesn't happen too often."

The gem was the Twins' 15th one-hitter, the 13th by a different pitcher. Baker became the first Twins pitcher to have a no-hitter broken up in the ninth inning since Steve Luebber had his no-hitter broken up by Roy Howell of the Rangers on Aug. 7, 1976.

The game earned the Twins a split in the doubleheader after they floundered through the first game with three errors and eight runs allowed by starter Matt Garza.

"I think we just went from the worst game we played all year, to almost perfect," Gardenhire said after Baker's performance. "That's pretty good going in one day."

Leslie Parker is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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