That's really the only word I can come up with to describe Scott Baker's outing yesterday. Going up against one of the better pitchers in the American League in Fausto Carmona, who has absolutely manhandled the Twins offense this season, Baker knew that he would likely have to be nearly perfect on the mound in order to win yesterday's game. He stepped up to the challenge.
Taking on one of the league's top offenses, Baker pitched eight shutout innings, nursing a one-run lead provided by an RBI ground-rule double off the bat of Alexi Casilla in the fourth inning. Baker was locked in. He got a few strikeouts (four), limited opposing baserunners (seven in eight innings), and even made a great defensive play, springing off the mound in the eighth to catch a bunt in the air and converting it into a double play.
Baker's success should not be overly surprising, considering his recent history. Since June 20, he has made nine starts. He has allowed three or fewer runs in seven of those starts, and he has lasted seven or more innings in five of them. He has a 2.56 ERA over his past five starts. Baker has gone from being one bad start away from losing his spot in the rotation to pitching like an ace, delivering dominating performances almost every time out. At this point, I don't think it would be a major stretch to compare his contributions to what Francisco Liriano was able to do last year in terms of providing a major unexpected boost to the rotation. As a guy who was coming off a horrendous 2006 season and was mostly an afterthought in Spring Training this year, Baker's emergence has been a hugely uplifting sight for Twins fans.
To his credit, Carmona pitched a heck of a game in his own right. The only run-scoring hit he gave up (Casilla's double) probably would have been caught if the outfielders weren't playing so shallow. Carmona did his thing, getting 14 groundball outs and striking out five while allowing just the one run over seven innings of work. He shut down the heart of the Twins order, as Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau and Torii Hunter combined to go 0-for-12 with four strikeouts. Unfortunately for Carmona, he was out-dueled on this day by Baker, who just happened to be a little better.
With the way the Twins have been hitting lately, the starting pitchers have been under tremendous pressure. You've got to give them a lot of credit for the way they've responded. In their last eight games, the Twins scored five runs once and four runs once -- outside of that they have not scored more than three runs in a game. Yet, the team has still managed a 6-2 record during that span. Why? Because Twins starters have allowed two or fewer earned runs in all but one of those games, with the only exception being Johan Santana's start on Friday night in which he allowed three earned runs over six innings (still a Quality Start). During that eight-game span, the rotation has posted a collective 2.17 ERA.
That's some downright amazing pitching, but it's not sustainable. Which is another way of saying that the Twins are going to need to start scoring some runs if they want to keep winning and closing the gap in the standings. With their win yesterday, the Twins are now just 4 1/2 games behind the Indians for the lead in the AL Central, and 4 games behind the slumping Tigers for the Wild Card lead. I still think the Twins are going to have a real hard time making the playoffs this year, but at the very least they've put themselves in position to make things interesting over the last eight weeks of the season. And that will just make it all the more frustrating that Terry Ryan could not add any offensive help at the deadline.