CEDAR RAPIDS – As he left the Veterans Memorial Stadium mound after completing five innings of solid work Wednesday night, Scott Baker literally bumped into Jake Mauer, running off the field from the third-base coaching box.
The Kane County pitcher and Cedar Rapids Kernels manager quickly and warmly shook hands, with Mauer adding a friendly pat on the butt. Old buddies wishing the best for each other.
"Good to see him," said Mauer, whose Kernels dropped a 7-1 decision. "Scott's a great guy, a super good guy. He's a really good pitcher. Can really sink it, moved through the minor leagues with us pretty quickly. He's had some setbacks, some injuries, obviously. But when he's healthy, he's a very good starter. Kind of weird seeing him on the other side."
Baker made 159 starts for the Minnesota Twins, playing in the minor leagues with both Mauer and Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins. His first professional pitching coach was Gary Lucas, the Kernels' pitching coach.
He signed as a free agent with the Chicago Cubs in the offseason, but hasn't thrown even one 2013 big-league inning. Tommy John surgery last year and a major setback in spring training have shelved the right-hander, which led to him making a rehab appearance here.
At least he got a chance to catch up with Mauer, Watkins and Lucas before beating their team.
"I stopped by and talked to those guys," Baker said. "It was really good to see them, good to see some familiar faces. Just good people, good people throughout the organization. I don't think they'd have it any other way there."
This actually was Baker's seventh minor-league rehab stint and his best. He threw 68 pitches, allowing just one hit, no walks and striking out two.
He wasn't overpowering, to say the least, and his fastball sat in the mid-80s, topping out at 88. But this was progress.
"I made some pitches, fortunately," Baker said. "They hit some balls hard but right at guys, which as a pitcher, you always appreciate. I was throwing strikes, throwing it over, letting them put the ball in play.
"I think it was a step forward. At this point, I think it's just about getting innings and pitches in, kind of building that endurance. I was shooting for 75 pitches and five innings, and I think I was right around there."
Baker actually flew into town Wednesday afternoon from Chicago, which is when the Kernels found out he'd be pitching against them. He thinks he'll make one more start for Kane County before the Midwest League season ends Monday.
After that, who knows? And that includes what's going to happen next season, considering his deal with the Cubs was for one year at $5.5 million.
"Man, I have no clue," Baker said. "The Twins organization was wonderful. I have not one bad thing to say about them. The Cubs are the same way. They took good care of me. I think the focus right now for me is to get healthy and prove I can be a competing major league pitcher. (Looking at) more than that is tough to do."
Kernels starting pitcher Jose Berrios was roughed up a second straight outing, being touched for a pair of home runs and five runs over five innings. He is scheduled to be Cedar Rapids' starter in Game 1 of its first-round MWL playoff series next week against Quad Cities.
The teams play again Thursday night at 6:35.
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