FORT MYERS, Fla. -- After watching Scott Baker pitch three innings of a Minor League contest on Wednesday, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said that he expects the right-hander to be ready to start the team's fifth game of the season. "He said he felt good today, and he's feeling stronger," Gardenhire said. "By his next start he should have all of his energy back, so we're looking at him to start on [April 4]." Baker's availability is good news for the Twins' rotation, which has endured some question marks this spring. Baker had been expected to start at the top of the Twins' rotation this season, but endured multiple setbacks during Spring Training, which left his status for the start of the season uncertain.
The right-hander suffered a strained right lat muscle in a Grapefruit League start on March 8 after pitching just two innings that game. Then, on March 16 he came down with the flu, which has lingered for the past week. Baker lost a total of 12 pounds, although he's gained five back already. On Wednesday, Baker threw a total of 49 pitches in his three innings of a game between the Twins' Triple-A Rochester and Double-A New Britain clubs. He gave up four runs, two of which were earned, on five hits, and struck out two. The pitcher said he felt that he could have gone out for another inning, but after he threw 28 pitches in the third, the Twins didn't want to take a chance. "I'm pretty close to being back to normal," Baker said after his start. "The weight is not there. The appetite is getting there. Once the appetite is there, the weight is going to come back. I feel like I'm bouncing back pretty good, and I don't think that will change." Baker will remain in Fort Myers to make one more Minor League start on Sunday before his status is officially confirmed. The expectation is that Baker will increase his pitch count to somewhere around 70 pitches in that outing, and if all goes well, Gardenhire said Baker will be on track to toss close to 90 pitches against the Royals on April 4 at the Metrodome. Baker's lat muscle feels good, and he's making progress every day on his strength, which is what the Twins are looking to see. But Gardenhire also cautioned there still is a chance that Baker could begin the year on the disabled list if he endures any setbacks. "If he goes Sunday and it doesn't look good, then we'll ad-lib," Gardenhire said. "The good news is if we have to, we can backdate [a DL stint] all the way back, because he hasn't pitched in a real game." Still, the Twins hope they won't have to be concerned with that after what they saw from Baker on Wednesday. "This was the first time he's been out there in a little bit, and that's important," Gardenhire said. "He was already stretched out before, and now I think once he gets all of his strength back, then the pitches are going to be there."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.