05/17/08 2:14 AM ET
Far from an ordinary Joe
Saunders first in AL to seven wins by besting Dodgers
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
Moving right along, the man from Virginia who came to Spring Training hoping to win a job became the American League's first seven-game winner as the Angels maintained their Interleague and geographical superiority with a 4-2 victory over the Dodgers.
Maicer Izturis ignited the Angels' offense from the leadoff spot with two singles, a walk and two runs scored, and No. 2 hitter Gary Matthews Jr. snapped out of a funk with two hits and a run scored as the offense gave Saunders sufficient support.
In front of 44,047 Angel Stadium fans -- about 70 percent red clad and trying to drown out the Dodger Blue element -- Saunders delivered 90 pitches before exiting stage right with one out in the eighth.
If he could have taken one back, it would have been a fastball to Andre Ethier following a two-out single by James Loney in the seventh.
"Dead-red, first pitch," Saunders said of the heater Ethier sent over the wall in right for his fourth homer. "I think he was sitting on it.
"I probably should have gone to the breaking ball there. In fact, Nap [catcher Mike Napoli] and I were talking about how that one pitch might have cost us the CG [complete game]. Oh, well, maybe next time."
Dodgers manager Joe Torre, trying to reverse his fortunes against Scioscia from his days with the Yankees, didn't have much to applaud as the Angels continued their recent mastery of their turf rivals.
"Saunders looked like he had an easy time doing what he was doing," Torre said. "He was putting the ball where he wanted to. We didn't put any pressure on him."
Ervin Santana (6-0) has a chance to join his teammate at the seven-win plateau on Saturday when he engages veteran right-hander Chan Ho Park.
Santana and Saunders came to Spring Training thinking they were competing for the No. 5 spot in the rotation, but injuries to John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar created an opening. Both seized the opportunity and ran with it, excellent springs blending into superb starts.
Saunders is 7-1 with a 2.48 ERA, evolving into the kind of rock-solid starter he was convinced he could be after spending the past two seasons shuttling between Anaheim and Triple-A Salt Lake. He was 15-8 in 33 starts for the Angels coming into the season.
"I've got to keep it going," he said. "I'm throwing the ball well right now. I'm getting some ground balls, and my teammates are backing me up. They're making plays and getting some clutch runs."
Scot Shields, rebounding from a slamming by the White Sox on Wednesday night, got two outs to finish the eighth, and Francisco Rodriguez worked a perfect ninth for his Majors-leading 17th save. K-Rod struck out Jeff Kent and Loney, to end it, with big curveballs.
"Shieldsy and Frankie both had tough ones and bounced back," Scioscia said. "And Joe, outside of that leadoff walk in the eighth [to catcher Gary Bennett], pitched a terrific game. He put his sinker in good spots."
The diving fastball and offspeed stuff produced 13 ground-ball outs for Saunders. A high percentage of the plays behind the southpaw were made by Izturis, who handled eight chances at second while serving as a persistent nuisance to Dodgers starter Hiroki Kuroda.
Kuroda's second pitch of the game was stroked to right for a single by Izturis. He didn't score that time, thanks to a superb running catch in left-center by Juan Pierre of a long drive by Vladimir Guerrero. But Izturis was getting warmed up.
Bennett, catching with Russell Martin at third base, handed the Angels their first run in the fourth.
With Casey Kotchman at second with a double and two outs, Erick Aybar waved at a third strike in the dirt. Bennett picked up the ball and let it fly -- about 10 feet over the head of Loney at first.
Kotchman scored, with Aybar racing all the way to third. A diving stab by Martin at third on Robb Quinlan's grounder denied the Angels a second run.
Izturis' second single triggered the two-run fifth. Matthews followed with a single, sending Izturis to third, and both runners advanced on Guerrero's sacrifice fly to right. Garret Anderson's two-out single to right scored Matthews.
With another single in the seventh, against lefty reliever Joe Beimel, Anderson continued his recent surge. He has 13 RBIs in his past 11 games raising his average from .218 to .278 with 17 hits in 40 at-bats.
Saunders, who lasted 7 1/3 innings, had given up three singles when Loney and Ethier struck in the seventh.
In the bottom half, Izturis walked leading off, moved to third on a pair of wild pitches, and scored when Martin's low throw home got past Bennett on Guerrero's grounder to third. It was Vlad's second RBI without benefit of a hit.
The Angels hold a 36-27 Interleague series lead against the Dodgers and are 22-10 at Angel Stadium, having taken nine of the past 10 in Anaheim. The Angels were 5-1 against the Dodgers last year and are 31-18 since Scioscia became their manager in 2000.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.