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For Cubs, Scott Baker’s return an early key

Scott Baker 31 coming off Tommy John surgery is working hard regahis old form. | Morry Gash~AP

Scott Baker, 31, coming off Tommy John surgery, is working hard to regain his old form. | Morry Gash~AP

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Updated: April 11, 2013 6:47AM

MESA, Ariz. — The more Scott Baker throws and progresses from last year’s Tommy John surgery, the more he looks like the key to almost everything the Cubs want to accomplish the first month or two of the season.

Especially in the week since Matt Garza suffered the setback with his lat strain that could sideline him a month into the season.

“It definitely changes things a little bit, but it’s definitely nothing I think we need to worry about,” newly ordained Opening Day starter Jeff Samardzija said of two former 15-game winners opening the season on the disabled list.

‘‘If it were last year, it’d be a little bit different. But the depth we have right now, it gives us a little leeway to make sure Garza is healthy and comes back at his pace.”

No Garza and Baker in the opening rotation means lefty Travis Wood and swingman right-hander Carlos Villanueva are assured of joining Samardzija, Edwin Jackson and Scott Feldman on the five-man staff when the season starts.

Garza could resume playing catch Sunday or Monday, and the Cubs hope to have him in a spring game by the end of the month. Baker, who missed all of last season because of the elbow surgery, is scheduled to pitch in a game — albeit on the minor-league side of camp — for the first time Tuesday.

The bigger picture involves the importance Samardzija stressed barely a week ago, of getting off to a strong start, if only to send a message to the front office that this team deserves a chance to compete down the stretch instead of getting dismantled at the trade deadline.

“The beginning of the season could be as important of a first couple of months as we’ve had,” he said.

If so, nobody becomes more important to that equation than Baker, who reached 89 mph during a simulated game Thursday and is on schedule for a mid-April debut.

“That solidifies a lot of things,’’ manager Dale Sveum said of a possible return for Baker sometime near the end of the Cubs’ first homestand. “If he comes back like the Baker we saw in Minnesota before he got hurt, and Garza comes back at about the same time, you’re looking at a pretty good starting staff, if everybody’s pitching up to their capabilities.”

With quality arms getting bumped to the bullpen at that point, it makes the relief crew better, too, Sveum said.

Samardzija figures the return of Garza will be a “turbo shot” to the staff whenever it happens — even if it’s a month down the road.

Given Baker’s strong and steady pace this spring, his timeline looks more predictable.

“With Baker, there’s just something calming about him that a veteran brings,’’ Samardzija said. “Usually when those veterans come back, they just fold right into the mix pretty seamlessly. I’ve seen that with Ted [Lilly] and [Ryan Dempster].”

If anything, the bigger challenge for Baker might be the mental side of the process, though he seems to be saying all the right things.

“I think you have to be confident that it’s going to be there. To second-guess or to doubt yourself and your abilities, I don’t see in what way that’s going to benefit you,” said Baker, whose former Twins teammate Francisco Liriano struggled to trust his elbow enough to return to the consistent All-Star pitcher he was as a rookie.

“At the same time, this isn’t my first rodeo. You definitely have to marry the physical and the mental together because there is a feeling where you trust it. You trust your ability to just give it everything you’ve got, no holding back.

“You’re trusting your pitches, you’re trusting that your elbow’s going to hold up. You can tell yourself all you want, but until you start letting it go and you don’t have any adverse effects, then there’s really nothing else you can do. . . .”

He seems to have his mind around the process. And Samardzija said watching him and Garza work behind the scenes as they try to get back on the mound makes him confident in what to expect when they return.

“They’re in there working harder than almost anybody,” Samardzija said. “It says a lot about a guy.”

And about whether Samardzija’s vision for any kind of reasonably fast start is still intact.

“If we’re doing our part also — the guys that are pitching — then it allows them to take their time and come back when they’re ready instead of rushing,” he said.

“It’s not just getting through two weeks or getting through six weeks, it’s getting through the season. We might have a surplus of pitching at that three- or four-week mark. . . .

“We’re actually in a strong situation when it comes to that.”

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