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Saunders' success long time coming

Saunders' success long time coming

ANAHEIM -- Last year at about this time, Joe Saunders began a frequent flyer program. But Saunders' Anaheim-to-Salt Lake shuttle, which brought him to the big leagues for four different stints in 2007, didn't exactly qualify as bonus mileage.

"It was like a yo-yo," said Saunders, who was 8-5 with a 4.44 ERA in 18 starts with the Angels and 4-7 with a 5.11 ERA in 14 starts with the Bees last season.

This year, the yo-yo has stopped spinning. Going into his seventh start of 2008 against the Orioles in Sunday's weekend series finale, the left-hander was 5-0 with an ERA of 2.08.

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Saunders' record went to 6-0 on Sunday as the Angels got by the Orioles, but his five-inning stint -- in which he gave up four runs on 12 hits -- tacked a cautionary note on all the euphoria.

With Ervin Santana also at 5-0 for April, the accomplishment marks only the second time in Major League history that two pitchers from the same team have gone 5-0 or better in the first month of the season. Aaron Sele and Rick Helling went 5-0 for the Rangers in April 1998.

With injuries keeping John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar out of the Angels' rotation, the Saunders-Santana surge comes as a gift.

Saunders says if he had to put his finger on one reason for his turnaround, it's his work in the offseason with Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher, specifically on being able to throw his curveball for strikes in any situation.

"Now he has three pitches [fastball, changeup and curve] coming out of the same arm slot," Butcher said. "When his curveball is there for a first-pitch strike, he can back-door it or break it off a batter's back leg."

To get to that point, Butcher said, "We worked on simplifying his delivery. It's something we'd worked on in the past, so we cleaned it up in the offseason. If he was not closed up to his front leg, he was having problems repeating his arm slot."

Now, with everything coming from the same slot, Butcher says hitters' expectations are minimized.

Catcher Jeff Mathis, who worked Saunders' first and fifth victories, as well as Sunday's contest with the O's, said, "The main thing that's got him on track is his confidence. 'Here it is, hit it, and let's go.'"

Mathis finds Saunders more than a willing collaborator.

"He's the type of guy who listens to you when you go out [to the mound]. He's very open to a lot of things."

Mathis said after Saunders' rocky outing on Sunday, "It was one of those days when he wasn't feeling as good as he has been, but he battled his tail off."

On that note, Butcher says Saunders has improved his game-management skills.

"It's a matter of knowing the right time, say, to give up a run, judging by who's coming up later -- it's damage control," Butcher said.

"I always try to keep learning different hitters," he said. "If you go out there and focus, afterward you can go over the hitters again and see what you did well."

Now that he's made it into May with an undefeated record, and now that his value to the team is underscored by his strong showing at a time the starting staff is less-than-robust, the 26-year-old has a moment or two to reflect on this part of his early-career ride.

"This organization is loaded with talent," he said. "I'm just one of the guys who can pitch at this level."

And about that 5-0 mark?

"In my own mind, this is what I want to do," he said. "Every athlete wants to succeed."

Ted Brock is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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