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Saunders struggles against Rangers

Saunders struggles against Rangers

ARLINGTON -- There was not much in the way of Texas hospitality found here.

For three days and nights, the Rangers did everything they could to test the Angels' self-esteem after the tourists from Anaheim had wrapped up the American League West title on a festive Sunday.

Finishing off a three-game sweep on Wednesday, a long day made longer by early rain and a shower of hits (17) and homers (five), the Rangers pounded Joe Saunders and the bullpen in an 16-2 rout at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

The three losses diminished the Angels' chances of claiming home-field advantage in the American League Division Series opening Oct. 3 or Oct. 4.

Working in damp conditions with footing issues was not what Saunders wanted in the way of a tuneup for a postseason start, something John Lackey, Kelvim Escobar and Jered Weaver will try to do better with in Oakland when they face the A's in that order starting Friday night.

"I feel OK," said Saunders, who figures to have a week and a half off before a projected Game 4 start in the ALDS. "I've got to kick it into fifth gear now, get ready for the postseason. Some extra days should help. I need some rest. My arm needs a little break."

The day started badly, and didn't get any better. Gary Matthews Jr. landed awkwardly on the warning track in center field after chasing Nelson Cruz's fly ball in the bottom of the first inning. Matthews limped off the field with what was described as an irritated left knee by Dr. Keith Meister, the Rangers' team physician.

Matthews said he was "fairly concerned" with an aggravation of the patellar tendon, initially injured in Cincinnati in mid-June. He said he hopes to take his place in center field when the ALDS opens against the Red Sox or the Yankees.

Matthews has been trying to regain his timing at the plate after a sprained right ankle kept Matthews sidelined for 10 games. This was his fifth start since his return to the lineup on Saturday, the day before the Angels clinched their third division crown in four seasons and fourth trip to the postseason in manager Mike Scioscia's eight-year run as leader of the pack.

"We definitely didn't play well," Scioscia said. "This whole series we didn't get much going offensively. We pitched OK [on Tuesday night], but didn't get anything going on the field. We need to push this weekend and get into our game.

"The playoffs are kind of an entity by themselves, but you'll feel a little better about yourselves if you carry a little momentum out of the regular season. We've played good baseball, but we had a handful of dry spots over the course of the season -- and this series was definitely one of them."

The Angels were in the first two games of the series, losing 8-7 and 3-1, but they were out of this one fairly quickly.

Trailing 6-0, the Angels finally got on the board in the fifth, piecing together two runs with a single, two walks, two hit batsmen and two sacrifice flies.

The second scare of the day came when Luis Mendoza, one out shy of qualifying for the win, drilled Vladimir Guerrero with a riding fastball. It was the last pitch Mendoza threw, turning it over to lefty John Rheinecker.

"Vlad's OK," Scioscia said. "He caught it in the lower forearm."

Saunders, meanwhile, is searching for his grade-A stuff and command.

"Joe hasn't been as crisp his last three or four starts." Scioscia said. "It is about command, about quality strikes early in counts. When he's had trouble, he's not been able to do that. He's trying to come in on hitters' counts, and that's a tough way to pitch.

"It's in him [to be successful]. We know it. Today was a day where he never got anything going."

Saunders lasted five innings, yielding seven earned runs with nine hits and three walks, striking out six. Two-run homers by Sammy Sosa and Cruz and a solo blast by Gerald Laird were his undoing.

"I thought I threw some good pitches," Saunders said, "that were just off [the plate]. I had to come back for a strike. Sosa hurt me. It was a decent pitch, but he was looking dead red. The pitch to Cruz was up. Other than that, I thought I threw some decent pitches."

The 26-year-old southpaw delivered one of his finest performances in his three Major League seasons on Aug. 19 in Boston, enabling the Angels to split a four-game series with a 3-1 win. He went 7 2/3 innings, yielding a run on six hits in handcuffing the lethal Red Sox attack.

In seven starts since that fine day in New England, he is 1-4 with a 6.63 ERA, raising his ERA from 3.25 to 4.44.

The Angels, who hadn't given up as many as 16 runs in a game since May 2006, will use the final series in Oakland to put the finishing touches to their postseason plans.

Scioscia indicated that the club is leaning toward carrying 10 pitchers in the first round of the postseason, opening an extra spot for a bench player.

"There are some tough decisions we're going to have to look at," Scioscia said. "On the pitching side, we're got 14, 15 core guys, and we've got to get down to 10."

With Darren Oliver, Justin Speier, Scot Shields and Francisco Rodriguez bullpen fixtures, that leaves two spots open for Chris Bootcheck, Dustin Moseley, Santana and Bartolo Colon.

With Jeff Mathis and Mike Napoli sharing the catching duties, the DH and bench assignments -- if Guerrero plays right field -- will be drawn from Maicer Izturis, Reggie Willits, Robb Quinlan, Nathan Haynes, Juan Rivera, Kendry Morales, Erick Aybar and Ryan Budde.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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