Angels fall in Saunders' solid debut

Angels fall in Saunders' solid debut

ANAHEIM -- Joe Saunders' Major League debut Tuesday night was a special one. Called up to make a spot start, the left-hander allowed only five hits and two runs in 7 1/3 innings and departed with the lead.

It was the kind of premiere that will make the flight back to Salt Like City on Wednesday easier to bear, because both Saunders and the Angels now know he can compete at the game's highest level. The only thing missing from the sterling story line is a win.

For the ninth time in 18 games, the Angels' bullpen blew a save. On Tuesday, it was closer Francisco Rodriguez who the Blue Jays touched for two walks, two hits and two runs on their way to a series-evening 4-3 win.

"He pitched a hell of a game," Rodriguez said of Saunders. "He was outstanding, but unfortunately he didn't get the win because, as everybody knows, I didn't do my job."

While Saunders' sharp command helped him keep Toronto hitters off balance while only issuing two walks, Rodriguez's command eluded him for most of the ninth inning. Only nine of his 18 pitches were strikes, a problem Rodriguez and manager Mike Scioscia attributed to some mechanical kinks.

"He's got a complicated delivery with amazing stuff," Scioscia said, "and when that gets a little out of whack, there's gonna be a price to pay."

The mechanical kinks might also explain why Rodriguez's velocity has been down slightly the last two nights, with his fastball topping out around 91 mph, instead of his traditional 94-plus mph, and his slider not breaking quite as sharply as Angels fans have come to expect.

"A little bit, my timing's off," Rodriguez said, "but mentally and physically, I feel fine."

Toronto's ninth-inning rally started after Rodriguez got an 0-2 count on Jays cleanup hitter Shea Hillenbrand, who homered earlier in the game. Hillenbrand waited back on a high breaking ball and lined it into center field for a single. Rodriguez then walked pinch-hitter Eric Hinske on five pitches.

Catcher Gregg Zaun tried to sacrifice, but he pushed such a beautiful bunt up the third-base line that he ended up legging out a base hit. Rodriguez then walked Corey Koskie to force in the tying run. Pinch-hitter Frank Catalanotto made the inning's first out when his sacrifice fly plated the go-ahead run, at which point Scioscia pulled Rodriguez.

Kevin Gregg ended the inning with two quick flyouts, and the Angels had a chance to rally in their half of the ninth. But for the first time in the last four Jays-Angels games, this one didn't make it to extras, as Miguel Batista didn't allow a hit in earning his 22nd save.

The Angels' final-frame struggles, though, can't negate Saunders' strong showing. He worked four one-two-three innings, showing exceptional efficiency for a young pitcher. He breezed through five innings on 58 pitches and left after recording 22 outs on only 95 pitches.

"He moved the ball in, changed speeds, showed a good breaking ball and had nice run on his fastball," Scioscia said. "That combination, that works if you're gonna be able to hit your spots, and he did."

"It was a rush. It's every kid's dream to get out there. It just makes you work harder. It just makes you know where you want to be."
-- Joe Saunders,
on his first Major League appearance

Saunders was backed by RBI singles from Adam Kennedy and Chone Figgins in the fifth. The Angels also tallied a run in the second, when Vladimir Guerrero singled and later scored on a double play.

Saunders allowed Hillenbrand's homer leading off the second and a two-out RBI single to Vernon Wells in the sixth, but he was otherwise unscathed.

Scot Shields (25th hold) finished out the eighth before Rodriguez (2-3) suffered his fifth blown save in 32 chances and took the loss. Toronto's Brandon League (1-0) pitched 1 1/3 perfect innings of relief for the win.

Saunders was filling in for Paul Byrd, who could've made the start but was held out as a precaution after he experienced back spasms over the weekend. Called up prior to the game, Saunders was optioned back to Triple-A Salt Lake after the game when the club recalled reliever Greg Jones.

Saunders made the most of his one day of Major League service time, as his parents and several high school buddies flew in all the way from Washington D.C., for the game. They were not disappointed.

"I talked to them before the game," Saunders said. "My mom was really happy and I was really happy."

Saunders will return to the Minor Leagues with a wonderful memory -- and an enticement to find his way back to Angel Stadium as soon as he can.

"It was a rush. It's every kid's dream to get out there," he said. "It just makes you work harder. It just makes you know where you want to be."

Mark Thoma is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.