Joe Saunders, an All-Star last season, has put left shoulder concerns that made for a fitful four months in his rear-view mirror. The Virginian is motoring along in style, dealing premium stuff again.
Saunders continued the run of superlative Angels starting pitching on Friday night, subduing the White Sox across seven breezy innings in a 7-1 romp in front of 38,375 at Angel Stadium.
Maicer Izturis fueled the Angels' offense with two doubles and a single, driving in two runs and scoring twice, as the Halos' fourth straight win and seventh in eight games pushed their American League West lead to 5 1/2 games over the Rangers. Texas was rained out at home against the Seattle.
"The win against Detroit four starts ago [on Aug. 26 after 19 idle days] was the turning point," Saunders said, having pushed his record to 13-7 with his fourth consecutive win. "I'm way past the injury and DL stint. I'm ready to go for the stretch."
With Saunders locked and loaded alongside John Lackey, Jered Weaver, Scott Kazmir and Ervin Santana, manager Mike Scioscia couldn't feel much better about his rotation.
"They're hitting their spots, nice arm speed, good velocity," Scioscia said of his newly assembled quintet. "Nobody has to bite off too much. Pitch your game. The offense is coming around. We're reloading every night with a guy who gives you a chance to win."
Saunders feels he's back to being the guy who broke through in 2008 with a 17-7 season, falling two innings short of 200 in 31 starts.
"It's real nice," Saunders said of the rotation that is spinning one gem after another. "Lack's throwing the ball great, Weav's been there all year. With Kaz doing his thing and Santana, it's a good place to be right now.
"I'm trying to match what everybody's trying to do out there. We're all throwing great right now. We'll try to keep it going. With this offense, I think we're going to go pretty far."
Scioscia was happy to see Saunders go seven innings and shut it down with 101 pitches.
"Joe is still rebuilding from a little shoulder issue from earlier," the manager said. "If we don't have to extend him, we're not going to do it. It doesn't make sense to push it.
"I can tell you we're relieved. We were all very confident it was going to be a matter of time. With 19 days [off], he missed almost his fourth start.
"We're just relieved to see him throwing the ball as well as he is now -- not only for now but his career. That's a tough right-handed lineup he shut down."
When Saunders surrendered a third-inning leadoff homer to Jayson Nix -- his third in four career at-bats against the lefty and 12th of the season -- it cut the Angels' lead in half.
"It wasn't a bad pitch -- just the wrong pitch [to Nix]," Saunders said. "He's looking to drive the ball, and it was just the wrong pitch at the wrong time. I tried to throw it for a strike, and he got it. Just move on to the next guy. Besides that pitch, I thought I threw pretty good."
After that, Saunders was lights-out, retiring the last 15 hitters White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen sent to the plate.
"If you score just one run," Guillen said, "it's going to be hard to win games, especially against the Angels. Their offense is pretty good."
Yielding three hits and a walk across seven innings, striking out three men, Saunders turned it over to the bullpen. Jason Bulger, Darren Oliver and Jose Arredondo finished the job.
Over his past four starts, covering 24 1/3 innings, Saunders has yielded just five earned runs.
The Angels jumped on Gavin Floyd (11-10) in the first. Chone Figgins walked, took third on Izturis' double to right, and scored on Bobby Abreu's infield out. Vladimir Guerrero lined a single to center to score Izturis.
A three-run fifth gave Saunders a cushion. Erick Aybar singled with one out, and after another walk by Figgins, Izturis doubled to the right-center gap, scoring both runners. Taking third on a wild pitch, Izturis scored on Abreu's sacrifice fly.
With Scott Linebrink on the mound, the Angels padded their lead in the eighth. Abreu doubled and scored on Guerrero's single to right. Making his Major League debut, Chris Pettit ran for Guerrero, scoring on Juan Rivera's double after a wild pitch and an intentional walk to Kendry Morales.
The offense enabled the pitching staff to breathe deeply and go about its business.
Making it through seven innings is always a good sign for Saunders. He's 24-3 in his career when he does that.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less