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Why Dusty Baker pushed Prior, Wood, other starters so hard

Nationals manager Dusty Baker on the NLDS against the Cubs: "The No. 1 thing is [to] keep the pressure on. No matter what the score is, you keep the pressure on."

Is this Cubs team better than the one Dusty Baker managed to within a foul ball and botched double play of the World Series?

And could one of the differences between be at the root of some of the starting pitching breakdowns that plagued starters such as Mark Prior and Kerry Wood during that era?

Baker seems to think so in both cases.

In town this weekend as the first-year manager of the National League East-leading Washington Nationals, Baker compared what many believe were the best Cubs teams in 70 years or more to the team that took the best record in the majors into Thursday night’s series opener against the Nationals.

“I know they have more depth than we had,” said Baker, who managed the Cubs from 2003-06. “They have a better bullpen than we had then. It’s no consolation, but it’s why I had to stretch out my starters longer than I even wanted to because we didn’t have a bullpen like they have now. I’m not saying we didn’t have a great bullpen, but at that time we had to make a big trade in order to make that push.”

Baker has long been blamed by Chicago sports-talk pundits and fans for his pitchers’ injuries, based on the handling of those pitching staffs. Wood and Prior have, in turn, been outspoken in defense of Baker on the subject.

Cub fans continued expressing their displeasure with one of the most successful Cub managers in decades by chanting “Dusty sucks!” every time he stepped onto the field during Thursday night’s game.

With Prior, Wood and Carlos Zambrano anchoring the 2003 staff, that team became the Cubs’ closest to reaching the World Series since integration, until the infamous unraveling of an eighth-inning lead in would have been a Game 6 clincher in the National League Championship Series.

The 2004 team was considered even stronger.

“What kind of upset me was how much money they spent as soon as I left,” said Baker, who went on to manage the Reds during an eight-year stretch that included three playoff appearances. “But when I look back, I also had to realize that the Cubs weren’t spending money then because we were in the middle of the transition for the Tribune Company to be sold.”

Baker, who turns 67 next month, is focusing these days on what so far with the Nationals looks a lot like the sudden impact he had with that ’03 Cubs team.

“I think about the many times I wanted to be the guy who won it in Chicago, and we were close,” Baker said. “So now I’m in a similar situation in D.C. They haven’t been in existence long. but baseball’s been in D.C. for a long period of time.

“I’ve got a new goal to be the first guy [since 1924] to manage a team and take it to a World Series and win in D.C.”