Former Wildcat ace impresses in the minors

Former Chico State ace and current Hillsboro Hops minor league baseball player Nick Baker. Photo courtesy Nick Baker

Getting off to a great start is something former Chico State pitcher Nick Baker has been accustomed to throughout his career. During his first season in 2011 with the Wildcats, he posted nine wins out of the 12 games he started, the most out of any pitcher on the team that same year.

The Arizona Diamondbacks selected Baker, 22, during the 29th round of the Major League Baseball first-year player draft this summer. While playing for Arizona’s minor league team, he compiled a 3-1 record with a 3.20 ERA and only two walks.

Now in his first year as a member of the Hillsboro Hops, Baker is at it again.

Despite only playing 16 games for the Hops so far, the young pitcher has started to make a name for himself by posting an impressive streak of 28 innings with no walks.

Baker’s recent streak resulted in an invitation to this year’s Northwest League All-Star Game, where he played as a starter for the South Division Team.

His recent accomplishment does not come as a surprise because even as a first-year, Baker always had the knack to get the job done, said Abel Alcantar, Baker’s former Wildcat teammate.

“When you mentioned that he hasn’t had a walk in 21 games or so, it did sound exactly like him,” Alcantar said. “The reason why he was such a good pitcher his freshman year is because he competed every single game.”

Though he recognizes and appreciates the praise that he has gotten for his streak, it has actually hurt his game, Baker said. Hitters on opposing teams started to look at the stat sheet and realized that he was only throwing strikes, which resulted in batters being more confident on swinging the bat while facing him.

“I think walking a hitter actually benefited me more than not walking a hitter,” he said. “It’s kind of hurting me in the long run. I think it’s kind of almost backfiring.”

According to Chico State’s head baseball coach Dave Taylor along with his former teammates, Baker’s success on the next level is a result of his competitive nature and his ability to throw strikes when on the mound.

“He’s not a 92-93 mph guy, but he’s an 80’s guy that has ball movement,” Taylor said. “He throws strikes.”

Taylor also attributes Baker’s success to his knack of taking advice and learning from it, recalling a conversation on a plane during one of the ‘Cats’ World Series runs, when the two talked about what Baker needed to do to improve for the following season.

After their conversation, Baker worked hard in the weight room that summer, and he came back the next season ready to start, Taylor said.

“He cleaned up some of his mechanics and really was determined to show myself and everybody that he’s a weekend guy, a Friday guy, and he did that,” Taylor said.

Adding to Baker’s ability to take criticism, he always took whatever the older players told him with a grain of salt, and learned from what they had to say, Alcantar said.

He credits his time in Chico for helping him grow as a pitcher, Baker said.

“I had my ups and downs, like anybody at Chico State,” he said. “I think I learned from my failures, what did and didn’t work, so I took the best of all that and applied it here.”

Although he’s had a good season so far, his time in the minors is not without growing pains, like getting used to the grueling schedule the league offers, Baker said.

“In college you play once a week, but here it’s everyday there’s traveling so (I’m still) getting used to that difference,” he said.

The main difference between a college team and professional team is the mentality of the players, Baker said.

“In college it’s more of a group effort, as opposed to here it’s more of an individual effort,” he said. “I mean not that it’s a free-for-all here, but it’s more of you looking out for yourself than the team.”

With only 33 games in the season so far, Baker still has a significant amount of time left to get used to the game and contribute to his new team, which currently sits at the top of its division with a 25-12 record.

Just a year removed from playing for the Wildcats, Baker has experienced quite the ride so far in his career.

Between getting drafted by a major league team to playing in an all-star game, there are still things he misses from his time in Chico, Baker said.

“I miss the good local food, the mac and cheese from The Banshee,” Baker said. “My girlfriend is still there; I miss a lot of people there, just hanging out having a good time and the good weather pretty much year-around.”

Jose Olivar can be reached at [email protected] or @jpu_olivar on Twitter.