MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -The Minnesota Twins have been waiting for a season like this from Scott Baker.
The pitching-rich franchise has held the right-hander in high regard ever since making him a second-round draft pick in 2003. But up until this season, Baker struggled to get the nuances of pitching in the big leagues down.
He's been up and down - from the big club to Triple-A - five times in his first two-plus seasons. But Friday night's near miss of a perfect game served as an exclamation point of sorts on Baker's strongest season yet.
``He's been on a mission this year,'' Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said Friday night after watching Baker strike out a career-high nine in his one-hitter against the Kansas City Royals. ``He's more determined, he works second to none. Hard hard worker. He's confident now. Just another great step in his development.''
Baker (8-6) had shown steady signs of improvement this season, including a three-hitter against in a 1-0 loss to Detroit on July 1, but the 25-year-old showed on Friday night why the Twins refused to trade him for Alfonso Soriano last season.
He carried a perfect game into the ninth inning, but walked the leadoff hitter before giving up a one-out single to lose the no-hitter in the Twins' 5-0 victory over Kansas City.
It was the culmination of an often frustrating road to the Twins' rotation for Baker, who struggled to keep the ball down in the strike zone in his first few stints in the majors.
``I appreciate everything that's happened to me in my career so far,'' Baker said. ``There's no doubt it's made me stronger.''
With what would have been the 18th perfect game in major league history there for the taking, Baker jogged out to the mound for the ninth inning and calmly took the ball, a cool Cajun undaunted by the history that approached.
``What did I have to be nervous about?'' Baker asked with a shrug. ``I pitched a great game, no matter how it worked out.''
He went to three balls on John Buck for just the second time in the game and walked him two pitches later to lose the perfect game.
Esteban German grounded into a forceout and Mike Sweeney, activated from the disabled list between the day-night doubleheader, pinch hit and blooped a two-seam fastball to left-center for his first hit since June 16 - and his third hit in four career at-bats off Baker.
``It's something that you don't want your name to be associated with,'' Sweeney said of the losing end of a no-hitter. ``But still, at the end of the night, Scott Baker pitched with a lot of heart and pitched extrememly well.''
The home crowd of nearly 25,000 stood and applauded the effort, and Baker got David DeJesus to fly out to center and Mark Grudzielanek to fly out to second for the one-hitter, his second complete game in 44 career starts.
Baker didn't even make the team out of spring training and didn't get his first start of the season until May 19. It was just the latest obstacle to overcome.
``I think since he came back and got his opportunity to pitch, he's realized that it's time,'' catcher Mike Redmond said. ``Time to go out there and show what type of pitcher you are and what you're made of.
``I think he's understood that and gone out there and obviously he's taken that and run with it.''
Was Baker disappointed when Sweeney's hit fell in?
``No, absolutely not,'' Baker said. ``I did the best I could. What else could I do? Why would I be upset about anything?''
Gil Meche (7-12) allowed just three runs and seven hits in seven innings for the Royals, who won the first game of the day 9-4.
``I think we just went from one of the worst games we've played all year to almost perfect,'' Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said.
Baker's outing wrapped up quite a week for the kid from Louisiana. He returned to the Twins on Wednesday after spending time with his newborn son, Easton, and his wife, Leeann. Easton was born five weeks premature on Aug. 24 and is doing fine.
``Yeah, without a doubt,'' Baker said. ``It's very special. I wouldn't have it any other way.''

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