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Saunders ready after long break

Saunders ready after long break

NEW YORK -- Penciling in John Lackey as the Game 1 starter of the American League Championship Series against the Yankees was a no-brainer for Angels manager Mike Scioscia and pitching coach Mike Butcher. He's the club's ace and in-house "big game" guy.

But selecting the probable pitcher for Saturday's Game 2, scheduled to take place at 4:57 p.m. PT on FOX, required a bit more thought, and it's a decision that could potentially have major implications in how this best-of-seven set shakes out.

The Angels had placed Jered Weaver in the second slot of the rotation for the AL Division Series against the Red Sox, but they wanted someone to offset the potential damage that comes from Yankee Stadium's short porch in right field.

Enter southpaw Joe Saunders, who will be getting the ball for the first time in a long time.

"Joe Saunders was the guy that we felt was ready, and I thought his stuff would match up better in this park than anywhere else," Scioscia said on Friday. "It's important, I think, to do as much as you can to keep these guys in the ballpark in this stadium. And I think Joe has the ability when he's throwing the ball well with his sinker. He should be able to do that when he's right."

The Angels, down 0-1 after Friday's 4-1 loss, need Saunders to be right, because they don't want to return to Anaheim in an 0-2 hole. Not having home-field advantage is one thing. Heading home with that kind of deficit could be a deal-breaker.

Tale of the Tape: Game 2
2009 Regular Season
Overall: 13-9, 33 Gs, 4.04 ERA, 97 BBs, 195 Ks.
Overall: 16-7, 31 GS, 4.60 ERA, 101 Ks, 64 BBs.
Key stat: 8.5 Ks/9 IP.
Key stat: 3.29 ERA with 6+ days rest.
Postseason
Career: 0-0, 1 GS, 1.50 ERA, 5 BBs, 6 Ks.
Career:0-0, 1 GS, 7.71 ERA, 4 BBs, 2 Ks.
At New Yankeee Stadium
2009:5-3, 16 GS, 3.51 ERA, 104 Ks, 52 BBs. Career: 5-3, 16 GS, 3.51 ERA, 104 Ks, 52 BBs.
2009:first career start. Career: first career start.
Against this opponent
2009: 1-0, 2 GS, 4.26 ERA, 4 BBs, 16 Ks. Career: 2-2, 6 GS, 4.43 ERA, 39 Ks, 11 BBs.
2009: 1-0, 2 GS, 4.72 ERA, 2 BBs, 6 Ks. Career: 2-1, 5 GS, 6.28 ERA, 19 Ks, 10 BBs.
Loves to face.: Torii Hunter, 2-for-23 7Ks. Hates to face: Bobby Abreu 20-for-64, 11 RBIs.
Loves to face: Mark Teixeira 2-for-16. Hates to face: Alex Rodriguez 7-for-14, 2 HRs, 4 RBIs.
Game breakdown
Why he'll win: Power pitcher
Why he'll win: Sinking fastball limits homers
Pitcher beware: Career high 97 walks in regular season
Pitcher beware: Road ERA of 5.12
Bottom line: Must limit the free pass
Bottom line: Is 12 days rest a good thing?

But the good news where the Angels are concerned is that since Saunders took some needed time off in August to address a knot in his upper back, he has been plenty right. After a 19-day layoff, he went 7-1 with a 2.55 ERA in eight starts down the stretch.

Now he is coming off more time off, though this break was brought about not by an injury but by an off day-laden postseason schedule and his team's sweep of the Red Sox.

Saunders hasn't pitched since the last day of the regular season, on Oct. 4 in Oakland. And if rain affects the schedule in the Bronx, he might find himself having to wait even longer to get the starting nod. If Saturday's game is rained out, it would be rescheduled for Sunday in the Bronx.

With all that down time, what has Saunders done to stay sharp?

"For me, it was throwing a lot of bullpens, throwing side work, making sure I get my work in and stuff like that," Saunders said. "Obviously, I know I'm going to be a lot fresher than usual. So I was trying to work out as much as I could. And, you know, get the arm activated as much as I could to keep the command there."

Sinkerballers are said to be at their best when they're a little tired, because they don't succumb to the temptation to overthrow and their fastball gets more downward action. If that's the case, then the break could work against Saunders.

That being said, Saunders, as Scioscia said, has the kind of stuff that plays perfectly for the Angels' needs in this ballpark. He has a career ground ball-to-fly ball ratio of 1.30, which he matched this season. According to statistical data on fangraphs.com, 46.6 percent of the balls put into play against him are ground balls, 35.8 percent are fly balls and just 17.7 percent are line drives.

This hitter-friendly ballpark is the great unknown for Saunders, though, as he has never pitched here. He was successful in his lone career start at the old Yankee Stadium, which had the same dimensions as the new facility, but that was way back on Aug. 11, 2006.

Saunders, then, will just have to trust his stuff and the precedent set by two members of the Yankees' rotation.

"I'm not going to know, really, how my stuff plays in this park until [Saturday]," he said. "We'll see how that goes. But obviously CC [Sabathia] does well here. Andy [Pettitte] does well here. You know, I've looked up to them my whole career and as a young kid. So I'll just follow what they do and really go from there. Just attack them and keep them on the defensive is going to be the game plan."

The key for Saunders will be taming the left-handers in the Yankees' lineup. Lefties are batting .257 with a .696 OPS against Saunders this season.

Saunders made two starts against the Yanks this season, going 1-0 with a 4.72 ERA in 13 1/3 innings.

"If you get behind those guys, they're going to hurt you," he said. "If they're in hitter's counts, obviously they're going to hurt you pretty good and hit the ball pretty hard. For me and for us, it's about throwing strike one, working ahead and getting them on the defensive and off the offensive."

Saunders was picked for Game 2 because of his ability to keep left-handers on the defensive and not give up crippling home runs. He was tagged for 29 homers on the season, but only five of those came off the bat of a left-handed hitter.

"When he was hurt a little bit earlier in the year, he had the ball up and got hit a little bit," Scioscia said. "But when he's right, we feel his stuff is going to play really well in this ballpark. And hopefully, we'll see that."

Said Saunders: "It's good to know my manager has confidence in me."

And the Angels will be feeling much more confident about their chances of toppling the Yanks if Saunders can come through in Game 2.

Anthony Castrovince 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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