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No ordinary Joe

Saunders makes the most of his opportunity, going 11-3 with 3.03 earned-run average.

June 27, 2008|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

Mike Butcher thinks Joe Saunders has "that little swagger in a good way," the kind of confidence that makes the Angels pitching coach think the left-hander "is going to get out of jams, which is a good thing when you're watching a young pitcher."

Just don't confuse a touch of cockiness with a sense of entitlement.

Saunders might be 11-3 with a 3.03 earned-run average and tied for the major league lead in wins entering tonight's Freeway Series start against the Dodgers, but he sounds more like a guy wondering where his next meal will come from.

"You're fighting for your life here," Saunders, 27, said. "I wouldn't say there's any job security in this game unless you're a superstar. There's always a guy in the minor leagues trying to take your spot."

Saunders was that guy in 2007, knocking on the door to the Angels' rotation but often having it slammed in his face.

The former Virginia Tech standout and 2002 first-round pick thought he solidified a spot by going 7-3 with a 4.71 ERA in 13 starts at the end of 2006.

But after going 2-0 with a 1.96 ERA in his first three starts of 2007, Saunders was sent to triple-A Salt Lake to clear a rotation spot for Bartolo Colon, who was returning from injury.

Saunders returned on June 2 to make a spot start for the injured Colon, and after giving up two runs and four hits in six innings of a win over Baltimore, he was sent right back to Salt Lake. Thanks for coming. Saunders didn't return until late June, finishing with an 8-5 record and 4.44 ERA in 18 starts. When the Angels let Colon go after 2007, Saunders finally seemed to find a permanent home

Then right-hander Jon Garland was acquired from the White Sox in November, and it appeared Saunders would have to battle Ervin Santana for the fifth rotation spot.

But Kelvim Escobar was diagnosed with a shoulder tear in spring training, assuring Saunders and Santana of spots, and when ace John Lackey suffered a triceps strain in March, Saunders opened this season as the No. 3 starter.

He has been a rock, ranking sixth in the league in ERA and opponents batting average (.236) and teaming with Santana (9-3, 3.32 ERA) to give the Angels one of baseball's best young one-two pitching punches.

Tonight in Dodger Stadium, he could become the first Angels pitcher since 1991 to reach 12 wins before the All-Star break; Chuck Finley and Mark Langston each had 12.

Many assume Saunders' success was fueled in part by job security. For the first time in his career, he wasn't looking over his shoulder. If anything, the opposite is true.

"I still don't feel very secure," Saunders said. "I feel like I have to prove myself every day. I'm not really pitching with a chip on my shoulder, I'm just trying to prove I can stay here the whole year. I didn't get the chance to do that the last two years."

Saunders is pitching aggressively in the strike zone, harnessing the movement of his 92-mph sinking fastball and mixing it effectively with his curve, changeup and occasional slider.

His stuff hasn't really changed; his command of it, and confidence in it, have.

Instead of trying to hit the corners, he's pitching to the target and letting his natural movement take the ball to the corners. Instead of going for strikeouts, he's pitching to contact, inducing 12 double-play grounders in 15 starts.

"It's all in the focal point, knowing where you want the catcher to set up and where you want to throw the ball," Saunders said.

"You have to trust that your stuff is going to move. I'm not trying to be too fine or worry that if I make a mistake it will be crushed."

Saunders' evolution as a pitcher has come with experience, maturity, and "understanding you don't have to overpower guys," Butcher said. "It's making pitches, learning when you really need a punch-out or when you need to show your out pitch early.

"You understand that's how you get deeper into games. He's worked hard, he learned a lot from last year, and that experience has definitely rolled over to this year."

Could that momentum take Saunders right into the July 15 All-Star game in Yankee Stadium? It's possible, and what a month that would be if it happens -- Saunders and his wife, Shanel, are expecting their first child in July.

"I don't even want to think about it," Saunders said of the All-Star game, not wanting to jinx himself. "I know my numbers are good. When I compare myself to great pitchers, they might have better stuff, but I'm just getting the job done, letting my defense work for me.

"I'm not going to strike out 200 guys a season. I'm going to pitch to contact. A lot of young guys are scared of that, especially at this level. It takes time to trust yourself, and once you do, you have confidence your stuff is good enough to where if they do hit it, it will be on the ground at someone or weakly in the air."

Saunders is All-Star worthy, but his chances could be hurt by his teammates.

Closer Francisco Rodriguez is a lock, Santana has a chance, and Lackey has the league's lowest ERA (1.65) in eight starts since returning in mid-May. Four pitchers from one team won't make the AL squad.

"I know he'd be excited," Butcher said of Saunders. "It's a little ways away, but with the way he's pitching, the number of games he's won . . . let's just say he's doing a nice job. He's fun to watch."

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mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Top of the charts

Where Joe Saunders ranks in the American League in three categories:

*--* Category Rank No. Record (15 starts) 1st 11-3 Opp. batting avg. 6th 236 ERA (34 ER, 101 IP) 6th 3.03 *--*

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