SAN FRANCISCO -- The usually talkative Dusty Baker warned reporters that he would be briefer than usual Friday.

He was on a word count.

"I'm feeling great, but I have to make sure that I'm right for the game -- and the whole game," Baker said.

Still recovering from the mini-stroke he suffered two weeks ago, the manager was saving his strength for Saturday, when his Cincinnati Reds open a best-of-five playoff National League Division Series against the Giants at AT&T Park.

Baker, 63, is trying again -- in his 19th season as manager -- to capture the World Series title he came so tantalizingly close to winning with the Giants.

In fact, the last time Baker managed a playoff game at this ballpark was Game 5 of the World Series in 2002, a game best remembered for J.T. Snow scooping up Darren Baker, then a toddler batboy, after the manager's son wandered into harm's way at home plate.

That 16-4 Giants win was the giddy high point before things unraveled in Anaheim in Games 6 and 7.

"Sometimes it stings at me, but you've got to leave it in the past,'' Baker said. "I'm still here. I have an opportunity to win a championship. And it lets you know that time never stops."

Baker is the first manager to lead Cincinnati to multiple playoff appearances since Sparky Anderson, who did it five times with the Big Red Machine from 1970-76.

But Baker's second division title in three years has been overshadowed by the stroke that kept him away from the dugout during the Reds' stretch drive.

Just minutes from being released from Chicago's Northwestern Hospital on Sept. 21, Baker suffered what would be diagnosed as a mini-stroke. He was getting ready to put on his clothes when a nurse asked him to say his name.

When Baker couldn't, she summoned a doctor and the hospital's stroke team swooped in.

On Friday, Baker referred to hearing the incident described as a "health scare."

"I wasn't really that scared," Baker said. "If that's going to happen to you, it might as well happen while you're in the hospital, right? I mean, shoot, if they can't take care of me, who can?"

The hospital's efforts stemmed the effects of an episode that could have been much worse. That's why Baker keeps referring to himself as "blessed." Given the nature of a baseball schedule, he could have been on the road or in an airplane.

Still, between his original hospitalization for an irregular heartbeat and the stroke that followed, Baker was away from the team from Sept. 19-30. The Reds went 7-4 during that stretch under bench coach Chris Speier, another former Giant.

Looking leaner, if a bit fatigued, Baker said Friday that he was feeling so good this week that he even went to dinner Thursday with "a couple of my homeboys" -- and without the supervision of his daughter. Natosha Baker has kept her dad on a strict diet of healthy food like couscous, oatmeal and turkey burgers.

"She wants her dad to live a long time, and I do, too," he said.

Baker has shed about 22 pounds. If he lacks in energy, it's only at the media podium. Around the batting cage and on the field, he looked like the charismatic figure who managed in San Francisco from 1993-2002.

"He's in really good spirits and good health," Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said Friday during the Reds workout. "He had a little scare. He's back stronger and better than ever -- we're very fortunate.

"We were all very concerned, obviously. The doctors ... assured us right away that he was fully recovered and that everything would be fine, and they got everything early enough and got him treated right away and prevented everything from getting worse."

Baker laughed often as he greeted old friends such as Will Clark, who gave him a big hug in front of the Giants dugout.

Baker's current players love him, too. With 1,581 career victories, Baker ranks 19th on the all-time list. Only Jim Leyland (1,676) has more victories among active managers.

He's among the active leaders in being second-guessed, too, but Reds first baseman Joey Votto said Baker "catches a lot of flak for the wrong things."

"I'm not going to be specific, but it's unfair,'' Votto recently told MLB.com. "There are too many things that are complicated behind the scenes. A lot of people want things to be cookie-cutter and fall in line.

"He's very good at reading people and reading situations and playing things by ear. The safe play is not always the play he makes. But with his experience and read of people, I think he's ahead of the curve of what most fans and critics know about managing."

Contact Daniel Brown at dbrown@mercurynews.com.

Wild Card playoffs

Cardinals 6, Braves 3
Orioles 5, Rangers 1

Road teams win wild-card games, but Cardinals' victory marred by controversy.

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