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Baker takes quick route to becoming Nuts saves leader

Craig Baker does his best to stay focused when he enters in the ninth inning with the Modesto Nuts clinging to a lead, though it's a challenge.

"When you're coming from the bullpen, and it's a save situation, the crowd's electric," the second-year pitcher said. "The reason you're in there is because it's a close game and they're all counting on you."

Success and failure can depend on one pitch, and whether Baker fires it past a batter.

That was the case Monday, as Baker entered in the ninth with the Nuts up 3-1 over Inland Empire. He faced three batters, striking out all three.

It took but minutes for Baker to complete his task, a surprisingly short outing considering its historical precedent.

It was Baker's 30th save of the season, breaking the franchise record of 20 set by Jim Brink in 1999 — when they were called the Modesto A's.

They've been playing minor league ball in Modesto for 64 years, and no one else has recorded 30 saves in a season.

The impact didn't hit Baker until he returned to the clubhouse after Monday's win.

"I wasn't thinking about a record, it was all about making sure we won," Brink said. "Today I've got time to think about it. It feels good to be having a successful season."

Baker had posted 27 consecutive saves before stumbling last week, twice missing opportunities to tie the record. It took just 24 hours to tie and then break it, earning No. 29 in Sunday's 4-2 win over Visalia and then No. 30 Monday.

Nuts' manager Jerry Weinstein didn't seem surprised that Baker has set the record with 23 games left to play.

"A closer usually has power stuff, and perhaps one or two dominant pitches," Weinstein said. " Craig has three of 'em — curve, slider and fastball.

"He has a history of being a starter, but he moved to the bullpen after he was drafted."

Craig was a lights-out starter from his early days in Little League through his final season at Northridge State. It's a family tradition: brother David was a 14th-round pick by the Baltimore Orioles in June and youngest sibling Brian is still in high school.

"Brian's got the best stuff of all," Baker said. "My dad knew how to raise pitchers."

Baker has gone well beyond what his father taught him, transitioning from an eight-inning workhorse into a ninth-inning specialist without the slightest protest.

"The Rockies have a plan, and I have faith that it will be for the best," said Baker, now enjoying his role. "I was setting up last year in Asheville (a low Class A club), and it's good to get this opportunity.

"If Colorado moves me up next year, that will be great. If I'm back in Modesto, I'll be out to get every save I can."

While much of baseball is often focused on money and statistics, Baker said it's important to have fun at the park.

"You can't forget it's still a game, and you have to enjoy what you're doing," he said.

Because Baker was a fourth-round pick in 2008, he's been able to have fun and enjoy the monetary benefits that come with baseball in today's era.

Major League Baseball has a list of recommended bonuses for picks through the first five rounds. Those were estimated at $4 million for the top overall pick to $155,000 for the last choice in the fifth round.

Baker, like most of his teammates, earns about $1,500 a month during the season.

"I couldn't tell you what the bonus was, other than it was slot money," he said. "If you reach the majors, the money is real good, but I'd give up half the salary for the opportunity to win a World Series."

Bee staff writer Richard T. Estrada can be reached at restrada@modbee.com or (209) 578-2300.

    

BAKER BY THE NUMBERS

12: Saves recorded after entering with a one-run lead.

11: Saves recorded after entering with a two-run lead.

7: Total walks given up in his franchise-record 30 saves.

6: Saves recorded after entering with a three-run lead.

5: Saves that have required more than one inning.

1: Saves recorded after entering with a four-run lead.

0: Homers given up while recording his minor-league leading 30 saves this season.

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