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Baker no stranger to tense outings

Baker no stranger to tense outings

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MINNEAPOLIS -- Twins starter Scott Baker has already pitched in a win-or-go-home situation against the Tigers this season.

It came in his last start.

The right-hander was on the mound for Minnesota on Thursday when it finished its four-game series with Detroit. At the time, the Tigers' magic number was two. Had the Twins faltered that day at Comerica Park, Detroit would have clinched the American League Central.

Now, Baker will have the chance to ensure for a second time that the Tigers don't celebrate a division crown in front of the Twins. Only this time, the stakes are a little higher.

Baker will take the mound for the Twins on Tuesday in a one-game tiebreaker vs. the Tigers at the Metrodome where a win not only means avoiding elimination, it would also deliver Minnesota a division title.

"Obviously the situation is the same, but the setting is different," Baker said. "There is no way to go around the fact that we're playing in the Dome and not in Detroit. I think we've seen in the past how well we play in front of our fans and how much it can affect the outcome of the game. We're all very excited to be here at the Dome."

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said it was fitting that Baker is the one to get the nod in the make-or-break contest.

"We talked about him being our guy at the beginning of the season," Gardenhire said. "It's kind of amazing that you play 162 games and here is Baker getting the ball for No. 163. I guess that's the way you are supposed to chalk it up when you leave Spring Training. If he's your No.1 guy, he gets the ball."

Baker had been the pitcher slotted to start for the Twins on Opening Day before a shoulder injury forced him to begin the year on the disabled list. Instead, Francisco Liriano got the start against the Mariners, and Baker had to wait nearly two weeks before making his debut.

Things got off to a rocky start for Baker. He went 2-5 in his first seven starts while posting a 6.98 ERA. That was far from the pitcher the Twins expected to see after Baker's strong finish to the 2008 season.

But things turned around for Baker at the start of the second half. He's been one of the most consistent starters for the Twins since the All-Star break, at a time when the Twins really needed him as three of the pitchers in their rotation went down to injury.

Baker is 12-4 since July 12, posting a 3.45 ERA over that span. While he labored a bit to get through his last outing in Detroit, Baker allowed just one unearned run over five innings and managed to put his club in a position to win a critical game.

Gardenhire has said that he believes Baker's early struggles might have stemmed from the injury. Baker thinks his mechanics might have been affected by the injury, but he still can't pinpoint exactly why he had such a tough time getting going this season.

"I think sometimes there is no rhyme or reason for your struggles, but I think you definitely have to try to learn from the experience," Baker said. "I feel like you learn to make the adjustments more effectively earlier on in your outings. And I think it's just about perseverance. A lot of times it might not be working out even if you're doing a lot of things right. You might not be getting the results you want to get but if you believe that you're capable of pitching at the big league level, you just have to stick with it and not give up."

Baker watched Nick Blackburn pitch in an identical situation to the one he's about to face last season when Blakcburn started against the White Sox in game No. 163 to decide the AL Central.

Blackburn pitched a gem for the Twins, allowing just one run over 6 1/3 innings but suffered the loss as Minnesota fell, 1-0, in the contest.

Baker was asked if he learned anything from watching Blackburn in that contest.

"I think we obviously know the magnitude of the game, but I don't think that necessarily changes the way we go about our business," Baker said. "The main thing is to go out there and pitch like you normally would in a regular-season start, and that's exactly what he did. That was a pretty tough venue that he pitched in."

Baker knows what hostile environments are like, but the good news for him is that this time he can expect to have 50,000 fans rooting for him instead of the other way around. And this time, Baker hopes that game No. 163 for the Twins will have a different result as well.

"It would be pretty cool to get a second chance to win that ballgame and move on to the playoffs," Baker said.

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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