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Saunders Has Provided Big Lift to Angel's Rotation

By Peter Pascarelli

Updated: June 15, 2008

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- There are times when you can watch the Los Angeles Angels and forget they very likely are the most secure of all the current first-place teams.

With their projected every-day lineup rarely intact and many of their every-day players inconsistent offensively, runs haven't come easily. But the wins keep on piling up for the Angels, who often kill other teams softly with sacrifice flies and take extra bases along with playing good defense. And, most importantly, pitching, much of which is produced by the team's farm system.

A prime example of how the Angels' home-grown arms are vital to their success is lefty Joe Saunders, who will start tonight in the ESPN Sunday Night Game of the Week, opposing the Atlanta Braves at Angel Stadium.

Saunders was drafted back in 2002. He missed the entire 2003 season with a shoulder injury and has since worked his way through the Angels' system. Saunders spent time with the Angels in each of the past three seasonss. And when he was needed this spring to step up and become an established part of the Angels' rotation, Saunders was ready.

Remember that the Angels opened the season with their two top winners from 2007, veterans John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar, on the disabled list. Such a handicap would've bury most clubs, especially when combined with the Angels' assorted lineup problems and difficulty to score runs. But the Angels just plug players in and keep grinding out wins.
Saunders has been one of those players who was plugged in, and comes into tonight's game with a chance to join Cleveland's Cliff Lee and the Yankees' Mike Mussina as the American League's only 10-game winners. Until two shaky outings in his past three starts, Saunders (9-3 with a 3.32 ERA) had been among the league's ERA leaders. And his development over the last season and a half is underscored by a 24-11 lifetime record and a habit of winning in games following Angels losses.


The key for Saunders has always been a good sinking fastball that often makes him a ground-ball machine and an emerging innings-eater (Saunders has pitched at least eight innings in five of his 13 starts). Saunders has elevated his effectiveness with a much-improved changeup, plus a useable curve and an occasional four-seam fastball up in the strike zone.

"He's come along every year," said Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher. "Joe always had the good sinker coming out of college [Virginia Tech], but eventually even the best sinker ball pitchers need to come up with a change of speed pitch.

"Joe has made his a real out-pitch, a pitch in which he has a lot of confidence and something he can try and turn to if he doesn't have his good sinker. He's also got a curve that he can throw in any count. And he'll surprise you with a four-seamer in the 90s.

"Joe's still relatively inexperienced and he'll still have nights when he might miss spots or whatever. But he's become a complete pitcher and the guy knows how to win."

Saunders is part of a rotation that has only starter (Jon Garland) not developed by the Angels' organization (Lackey, Jered Weaver and Ervin Santana all came through the Angels' farm system). And the Angels continue to claim a solid inventory of starting pitching beyond the five in their major-league rotation.

Most significantly, the Angels have become encouraged over the last several days with the progress being shown by Escobar, who faced batters in a simulated game on Friday and will likely be ready to go to the minor leagues for rehab starts sometime in the next week or so.


Should Escobar's comeback from shoulder trouble continue, he would provide the Angels with a major option for either their rotation or their bullpen.

"If Kelvim keeps progressing and becomes ready, we'll look at our situation at that time and decide where we'd need the most help," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who in the last week has welcomed back to the lineup previously injured infielders Howie Kendrick and Chone Figgins.

"We're going to have Kelvim prepare to be a starter. But if we need a starter we also have Dustin Moseley stretched out and ready to start in Triple-A, plus the younger guys like Nick Adenhart and Nick Green."
Scioscia is quick to acknowledge how important Saunders has been to the Angels' hold on first place in the American League West.

"When you lose two guys like Lackey and Escobar, you're not supposed to do well but we are fortunate that our organization has produced depth," said Scioscia. "And the way Joe started the season was a huge boost for us."
The Angels' farm system similarly provided a big boost to the team's bullpen when veteran setup men Scot Shields and Justin Speier struggled early in the season. The Angels recalled hard-throwing rookie Jose Arredondo in mid-May and he has become another important weapon for Scioscia. Arredondo gave up a home run to the first batter he faced after being recalled (the White Sox's Nick Swisher) and has since not allowed another run in 12 innings, during which he's allowed only seven hits and no walks.

Atlanta's farm system, meanwhile, has been stretched to the breaking point in the wake of a steady parade of injuries, mostly to the Braves' pitching staff. The latest Atlanta pitcher to head to the disabled list was reliever Rafael Soriano, who has complained of elbow problems for the virtually the entire season. The Braves are hopeful they will soon get some veteran help within a week when they could get back Mike Gonzalez, who has been out over a year following elbow surgery.

There appears, however, to be no more immediate help for Atlanta's thinned-out rotation despite the fact that rookie right-hander Charlie Morton made a solid start on Saturday night in his major-league debut. Tonight's starter for the Braves will be Jorge Campillo, who has been a mild surprise with his ability to at least keep the Braves in the games in which he's started so far.

Peter Pascarelli is the lead researcher for "Sunday Night Baseball." He will preview each Sunday night game all season long. He is also co-host of the Baseball Today podcast, which runs Monday through Friday on ESPN.com