By JANIE McCAULEY
SAN FRANCISCO — Minus his old signature toothpick, Cincinnati’s Dusty Baker leaned against the batting cage intently watching his players just as he did for a decade managing the Giants.
Baker is back in the Bay Area for the playoffs, 10 years after he came so close to winning a World Series with San Francisco.
“Well, I really don’t have much choice,” Baker said when asked if it’s a strange coincidence. “I feel comfortable here. I think my team likes coming here. This is a good town.”
Sometimes Baker still feels the sting of that World Series near-miss, even now, two managerial stops removed from his first career gig as a skipper in the place he has long called home.
On Saturday, he figures to be cheered by 40,000-plus fans at AT&T Park who still love him — “some of ‘em,” he quipped — when the NL Central champion Reds open their best-of-five division series against the Giants, who like Cincinnati clinched early and had plenty of time to get everything situated and lined up for the postseason.
“I’ll be honest, I like this clinching early thing,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy, whose 2010 World Series championship team clinched in Game 162.
These days, the 63-year-old Baker is conserving energy after a recent 11-game absence forced by a mini-stroke and irregular heartbeat. He just rejoined the Reds on Monday in St. Louis. Baker was away for the NL Central clincher, and Homer Bailey’s no-hitter at Pittsburgh last Friday night.
He’s ready to go now — with no plans to change a thing about the way he operates during a game on the playoff stage.
“I’m feeling like a grateful man,” Baker said from his spot at the cage on a sunny fall afternoon in the Giants’ waterfront ballpark.
Cincinnati’s 19-game winner Johnny Cueto takes the ball in Game 1 on Saturday night.
Matt Cain (16-5) pitches the opener for the Giants with plenty of postseason cred to fall back on: The three-time All-Star didn’t surrender an earned run during his team’s improbable title run two years ago. He went 2-0 in three starts and 21 1-3 innings, struck out 13 and walked seven.
Cain won his final six regular-season decisions and struck out 193 batters in 219 1-3 innings this season. The right-hander hasn’t lost in 10 starts since Aug. 6 at St. Louis.
He earned himself a new $127.5 million, six-year contract before the season as he’d so hoped, then backed that up by tossing the first perfect game in franchise history June 13 against the Houston Astros.
“This group has been together since the beginning and we all had the thought that this is where we wanted to be in spring training,” Cain said.
The Barry Bonds-led Giants fell six outs short of a World Series title in Game 6 against the wild-card Angels, then lost Game 7. And Baker was gone shortly thereafter, off to the Windy City for the daunting challenge of managing the Chicago Cubs.
Nobody will forget that terrifying moment when Baker’s then-3 1/2-year-old son, Darren, wandered into a play at the plate and almost got run over in Game 5 at AT&T Park. That led to the “Darren Baker” bat-boy rule as it became known — no toddlers working as bat boys, and a new age requirement of 14.
“Sometimes it stings at me, but you’ve got to leave it in the past,” Baker said. “You can’t live in the future and stay in the past. But I’m still here. I have an opportunity to win a championship here, and it lets you know exactly that time never stops. Time goes very quickly. Doesn’t seem like 10 years ago, doesn’t seem like 10 years ago my boy was 3 years old, being pulled off the mound. It lets me know that I’m getting older.”
Two years ago, the Giants finally captured the city’s first baseball championship since the franchise came West from New York in 1958. Two years ago, Baker’s Reds won the division and were swept right out of October by the Phillies and even got no-hit by Roy Halladay in the process.
Both are back in the playoffs after failing to make it in 2011. Both dealt with devastating injuries and lost their closers: San Francisco’s Brian Wilson and Cincinnati’s Ryan Madson.
Everybody involved knows these games could be interesting for a pair of clubs comfortable in close games — three of this season’s seven meetings were decided by one run.
“It’s going to be really electric, really emotional,” Giants center fielder and leadoff man Angel Pagan said.
Baker may still be returning to his former energetic self, but you wouldn’t know it by his quick wit and good-natured approach to everything and everybody.
That is what made it so hard on everyone in San Francisco when he departed on difficult terms with former managing partner Peter Magowan that fall of 2002. Yet Baker certainly will be given his due Saturday.
“We’ll see if they still love me on Sunday if we start off 2-0,” he joked with a smile.
Sticking to a healthy diet designed by grown daughter Natosha and wife Melissa, Baker went out for dinner Thursday night “with a couple of my home boys I grew up with” and ordered tomato soup, tomato salad and fish. He was headed for Filipino food Friday.
“He’s in really good spirits and good health,” Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said. “He had a little scare. He’s back stronger and better than ever — we’re very fortunate.”
Baker feels so good, in fact, he plans to manage again in 2013. Right now, he has an unsettled contract situation, but points out that’s nothing new to him. Throughout his recent ordeal, Baker pondered that maybe his best option is to stay put right where he is — if the Reds will keep him around.
“This is about the 10th time I’ve been through this,” he said. “The only thing that’s in my control is to win ballgames, and God is always taking care of me.”
Even Jocketty sees the significance as Baker returns to the place where he started as a manager. The place he was honored earlier this summer during the Reds’ trip to San Francisco, as part of a tribute to the ‘02 team.
“It is kind of ironic,” Jocketty said. “I know he’s excited about being here and being part of this. He feels very confident about our club. He thinks this is our year, and I think he’s right.”
At a glance
(All times HST) Game 1, Saturday, at San Francisco (9:37 a.m. HST); Game 2, Sunday, at San Francisco (TBA); Game 3, Tuesday, at Cincinnati (TBA); x-Game 4, Wednesday, at Cincinnati (TBA); x-Game 5, Thursday, at Cincinnati (TBA). (All games on TBS or MLB Network)
Season Series: Reds won 4-3.
Reds: 2B Brandon Phillips (.281, 18 HRs, 77 RBIs), SS Zack Cozart (.246, 15, 35), 1B Joey Votto (.337, 14, 56), LF Ryan Ludwick (.275, 26, 80), RF Jay Bruce (.252, 34, 99), 3B Scott Rolen (.245, 8, 39), CF Drew Stubbs (.213, 14, 40, team-high 30 steals), C Ryan Hanigan (.274, 2, 24).
Giants: CF Angel Pagan (.288, 8, 56, 29 SBs, 15 3Bs), 2B Marco Scutaro (.306, 7, 74 for Giants and Rockies), 3B Pablo Sandoval (.283, 12, 63), C Buster Posey (.336, 24, 103, 39 2Bs), RF Hunter Pence (.253, 24, 104 for Giants and Phillies), 1B Brandon Belt (.275, 7, 56), LF Gregor Blanco (.244, 5, 34, 26 SBs) or Xavier Nady (.184, 4, 13 for Giants and Nationals), SS Brandon Crawford (.248, 4, 45).
Reds: RH Johnny Cueto (19-9, 2.78 ERA, 217 IP, 170 Ks, allowed only 15 HRs), RH Bronson Arroyo (12-10, 3.74, 202 IP, 129 Ks), RH Mat Latos (14-4, 3.48, 209 1-3 IP, team-high 185 Ks), RH Homer Bailey (13-10, 3.68, 208 IP, 168 Ks, highlighted career-best season with no-hitter at Pittsburgh in late September).
Giants: RH Matt Cain (16-5, 2.79, 193 Ks, 219 1-3 IP, first perfect game in franchise history June 13 vs. Astros), LH Madison Bumgarner (16-11, 3.37, 191 Ks), RH Tim Lincecum (10-15, 5.18, 186 IP, 190 Ks, matched career high with 17 wild pitches), LH Barry Zito (15-8, 4.15, 184 1-3 IP; most wins since joining Giants in ‘07, won final 5 starts and 7 straight decisions).
Reds: LH Aroldis Chapman (5-5, 1.51, 38/43 saves), LH Sean Marshall (5-5, 2.51, 9/13 saves), RH Jonathan Broxton (3-3, 2.82, 4/6 saves), RH Sam LeCure (3-3, 3.14), RH Jose Arredondo (6-2, 2.95, 1 save), RH Logan Ondrusek (5-2, 3.46, 2 saves).
Giants: RH Santiago Casilla (7-6, 2.84, 25/31 saves), LH Jeremy Affeldt (1-2, 2.70, 3 saves), LH Javier Lopez (3-0, 2.50, 7 saves, .191 BA vs. LH), RH Sergio Romo (4-2, 1.79, 14/15 saves, .185 BA against), RH Ryan Vogelsong (14-9, 3.37 in 31 starts), RH George Kontos (2-1, 2.47 ERA).
The Reds won two of three from the Giants at Great American Ball Park from April 24-26. The teams split a four-game series in San Francisco from June 28 to July 1. Three of the seven games were decided by one run. The Giants were held to two runs or less in four of the games. … The Reds hold a 20-13 lead in the series over the last five seasons. …. Votto hurt his left knee while sliding into third base in San Francisco on June 29. A cartilage tear wasn’t detected until after the All-Star break, and he needed two operations and missed six weeks. The Reds went 36-12 in his absence, taking control in the NL Central. Votto batted .316 in 25 games after his return, but drove in only seven runs. He hasn’t homered since June 24. … Cain had the toughest time of anyone in the Giants’ rotation against Cincinnati this season, losing both of his starts. He gave up three runs in 6 1-3 innings of a 9-2 loss on April 24 — the most lopsided of the season series — and five runs in five innings of a 5-1 defeat on June 29. … Bruce batted .423 against the Giants this season with a homer and seven RBIs.
Reds: They won the NL Central ahead of schedule in 2010 with a young lineup, but got swept in the playoffs by Philadelphia, including a no-hitter by Roy Halladay. Cincinnati kept the roster virtually intact for 2011 and lost ground as Cueto and Bailey got hurt during spring training and Arroyo came down with mononucleosis that limited him all season. The front office changed strategy last offseason and dealt a package of players to San Diego for Latos, including two former first-round picks and starter Edinson Volquez. They also gave Votto — the 2010 NL MVP — a 10-year contract extension worth $225 million, showing a commitment to winning. All five starters made it through the season without injury, a franchise first, and became the cornerstone of Cincinnati’s second division title in three years. … The back of the bullpen got wiped out during spring training, when setup relievers Bill Bray and Nick Masset got hurt and new closer Ryan Madson blew out his elbow. Dusty Baker did some of his best managing, slowly moving Chapman into the closer’s role for the first time. The hard-throwing Cuban didn’t allow an earned run in his first 24 appearances, a club record, and saved 27 consecutive chances, another franchise mark. He missed a week in mid-September with a tired shoulder, which is a concern heading into the postseason. … Rolen was in and out of the lineup with more shoulder and back problems. Todd Frazier filled in and became a Rookie of the Year candidate with a .273 average, 19 HRs and 67 RBIs. Baker has to decide how much to play the two in the postseason.
Giants: In April, the Giants lost All-Star closer and 2010 major league saves leader Brian Wilson to a season-ending injury. In August, they lost All-Star game MVP Melky Cabrera to a 50-game suspension for a positive testosterone test. Just as he did two years ago during that World Series championship run, GM Brian Sabean brought in key pieces to fill key needs: Scutaro at second and Pence in right field. They’re not quite the castoffs and misfits of 2010 — Cody Ross, Pat Burrell — but more a team that overcame the absence of switch-hitting Sandoval because of two DL stints and moved forward seemingly unfazed when Cabrera got suspended. … Posey, who missed most of last season after serious leg and ankle injuries from a frightening collision at home plate with the Marlins’ Scott Cousins on May 25, returned every bit the player he was during his 2010 NL Rookie of the Year campaign. … Manager Bruce Bochy was spot-on mixing and matching in the bullpen all year, including in the closer spot after Casilla initially held the gig in place of Wilson. Newcomer Pagan made a huge impact down the stretch, while Posey captured the NL batting title and put himself in the running for MVP honors. … Giants rookie Hector Sanchez might catch, with Posey moving to first base, when Lincecum or Zito starts.
— Zito’s Second Chance. The lefty makes his playoff debut for the Giants. He was held out of all three postseason rounds in 2010, but bounced back this year with his best season since the 2002 AL Cy Young Award winner with Oakland joined the Giants on a $126 million, seven-year contract before 2007. San Francisco has won his last 11 outings. The last time the Giants won 10 or more consecutive starts by one pitcher was when they won 11 in a row with Bill Swift starting in 1992.
— Dusty’s Back. Baker returns to the Bay Area in the playoffs 10 years after he managed the Giants to a World Series defeat against the Angels before departing on difficult terms and taking over the Chicago Cubs. He was honored during the Reds’ summer trip to AT&T Park. Nobody will forget when Baker’s then-3½-year-old bat boy son, Darren, ran into the action before J.T. Snow scooped him up at the plate and out of harm’s way. Baker is in the final year of his contract and missed a string of games down the stretch because of an irregular heartbeat and a mini-stroke. Doctors cleared him to return for the final regular-season series in St. Louis, but the 63-year-old manager will have to cope with cross-country travel for the first time since then.
— Cy Young Or Bust? Lincecum pitched the Giants past the Rangers in the Game 5 World Series clincher at Texas in 2010. The two-time NL Cy Young Award winner got off to a miserable start this season but made strides down the stretch. Still, he set a career high for losses.
— Pressure Cooker. Chapman’s numbers are impressive but he’s still a work in progress — Baker had to admonish him when the reliever did two somersaults after saving a game in late June, showing he still has trouble keeping his emotions under control at times. The Reds could use Broxton to close if Chapman struggles.
— Kung Fu Panda. Sandoval has something to prove in these playoffs after his flop in 2010. While his ever-changing girth is the subject of constant scrutiny, he wants nothing more than to make up for two years ago. Because of his struggles, Sandoval appeared in only six postseason games and one in the World Series — batting .176 (3 for 17) with two RBIs and three strikeouts.