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Angels walk off on top

Napoli's homer in the ninth beats Mariners, 5-3, as team is the first to reach 90 wins.

September 13, 2008|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

Joe Saunders sprawled on a black vinyl sofa in the Angels' clubhouse Friday afternoon, trying -- with little success -- to finish a puzzle.

Frustrated, he finally decided to turn to his bullpen for help.

"What's the answer for 'hilltopper?' " he shouted across the room at reliever Scot Shields, who had nearly finished the same puzzle.

That wasn't the only time Saunders' teammates bailed him out Friday, only once the game started it was catcher Mike Napoli providing the help.

Held to two runs and three hits through six innings by Seattle's Ryan Rowland-Smith, the Angels rallied to tie the game in the seventh on Napoli's sacrifice fly before winning it in the ninth, 5-3, on Napoli's two-out, two-run homer.

"We got it done. Even though we didn't have a lot of hits, we did just enough," Manager Mike Scioscia said.

They got only five hits, in fact. Yet the newly crowned American League West champions made the most of them, winning for the fifth time in six games -- and the 90th time this season, making them the first team to reach that milestone.

It was also their 38th come-from-behind win of the season, the 20th in their final at-bat and their eighth in walk-off fashion -- all of which figures to be good practice for the playoffs.

Which is just one of the reasons why, newspaper puzzles aside, this is a pretty good time to be Joe Saunders. Seven months ago he reported to spring training unsure he'd have a spot on the Angels roster. And even though he didn't get the decision Friday, he still woke up this morning with a career-high 15 wins, tied with teammate Ervin Santana for the club lead.

In between he made the All-Star team, helped his team win a division title and watched his wife Shanel give birth to the couple's first child.

In three weeks he'll probably make his first playoff start.

"This year has been a whirlwind. In a good way," he said. "Ups and downs, obviously. And more ups than downs. I had a good year so far. But there's a lot more to contribute to the team."

Good thing, then, that he's starting to find his second wind. After back-to-back starts in which he gave up 12 runs combined in 6 2/3 innings, Saunders had made quality starts in his last three outings. Yet he has only one win since July 30 to show for that.

"You don't really worry about wins and losses. At least in my mind," he said. "I always look at the fact that, whether I win or I lose, did we get the chance to win. Tonight we pulled it out."

Friday was also a pretty good time to be Mike Napoli, who hadn't driven in two runs in a game since June 24. Against the Mariners he drove in four, the first two on a broken-bat single in the second and a sacrifice fly in the seventh that tied the score.

"It's a great feeling," he said. "I had a good night swinging the bat and what else could you ask for?"

Then he topped it off with his first walk-off homer . . . of his life. "I don't remember any time doing it," he said. "It was my first time."

And it could wind up helping the Angels do something for the first time too. Although they have won 90 games nine times in franchise history, they've never won 100.

"We're coming out here to win every day," Napoli said. "Just because we clinched doesn't mean we're just going to lay down and it doesn't matter what happens. We're going to come out here and still play hard and try to win ballgames."

--

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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