"Night and day from last year," he said. "Last year, I was struggling to get through bullpens. First time out, everything felt good -- my shoulder, my command, everything. What a difference."
Saunders was feeling free and loose in the area of his left shoulder on Friday morning, another very good sign.
"I'm really happy where I am," he said. "Recovery time is night and day. Last year was a learning experience. I learned a lot about how I needed to prepare.
"We were in bad shape [in the rotation] coming out of the spring, and I felt I needed to be out there even if I didn't feel right. The shoulder bothered me from spring on, but if I go down, we have Weav [Jered Weaver] and that's it."
Saunders tried to tough it out and take one for the team last season. It might have endeared him to teammates who were aware of the tightness in his shoulder, but it didn't do anything for his ERA.
By the time he finally admitted he wasn't right and took a 19-day hiatus, he was 9-7 with a 5.33 ERA in 23 starts.
An Aug. 7 pounding by Texas (five earned runs in 1 2/3 innings) convinced Saunders to go to the proper authorities -- manager Mike Scioscia and his training staff -- and he disappeared until Aug. 26.
Returning with strength in his shoulder and a familiar swagger back in his stride, Saunders went on a roll starting with a decision over the Tigers at Angel Stadium.
Finding his groove quickly, he shut out Seattle on three hits across seven innings in his next outing and ripped through September into October. Finishing with seven wins and a no-decision in eight outings, Saunders was 16-7 with a 4.60 ERA -- 2.55 in those final eight trips to the mound.
"That meant a lot to me," Saunders said. "It was starting to feel like 2008 again."
Saunders didn't start in the three-game sweep of the Red Sox in the American League Division Series but worked twice against the Yankees in the AL Championship Series.
He dueled A.J. Burnett on even terms (seven innings, two earned runs, five strikeouts) in Game 2 and was the losing pitcher in the decisive Game 6, yielding three earned runs in 3 1/3 innings as he fought his command.
HOW ANGELS STARTERS
|Joel Pineiro||87||79||.524||1,456 1/3||4.39|
|Ervin Santana||59||45||.567||846 1/3||4.52|
|Scott Kazmir||57||46||.553||870 1/3||3.83|
|Jered Weaver||51||27||.654||671 2/3||3.73|
|Joe Saunders||48||22||.686||571 1/3||4.22|
While there was no happy ending, there were enough positive moments over the past two months to encourage Saunders that he could recapture the special magic of 2008.
That was Saunders' breakthrough season, when the 2002 first-round Draft pick from Virginia Tech moved from part-time starter the previous two seasons to American League All-Star.
He delivered a shutout inning in the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium right after wife Shanel had delivered their first child, Mattea.
Joining Saunders in the Bronx that night was Ervin Santana, who had begun the spring dueling Saunders for the fifth spot in a loaded rotation. Injuries to John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar created openings, and Santana and Saunders both cashed in brilliantly.
"We were going back and forth that spring," Saunders said. "I had an option left that year, so I knew I had to make an impression. I was driven to make it, and it all came together."
Saunders was 5-0 in six April starts with a 2.08 ERA in '08. He came to the All-Star break 12-5 with a 3.07 ERA and finished 17-7 with a 3.41 ERA over 198 innings. The only disappointment was falling short of 200 innings, but even that came with a little touch of magic.
He missed one start for the birth of his daughter.
Saunders has very little doubt he can recapture and even surpass his 2008 form if he manages to keep the shoulder sound. To that end, he implemented an altered offseason training regimen.
"I worked out harder and earlier this winter," he said. "I started working out two weeks before Thanksgiving. I have exercises to keep my arm in motion, along with the usual stuff. I wanted to be ready for this season. I didn't want a repeat of last spring."
He isn't sure what caused the shoulder to tighten on him last spring, but whatever it was, there was no solution until he finally took that 19-day break.
"I'd never had anything like it before," he said, "so I wasn't sure what it was. Looking back, I should have missed the start of Spring Training rather than trying to battle through the stiffness the next 4 1/2 months."
He discovered the truth in the expression that less can be more.
"Shutting it down the way we did and the coming back like I did," he said, "that told me that it just needed a rest. That's part of the process, figuring things out about yourself."
Scioscia and pitching coach Mike Butcher look at Saunders as one of five potential aces in a loaded hand.
"When you have five guys as talented as we have in the rotation," Scioscia said, "you're going to have the ability to head off trouble.
"I do feel we have the deepest staff we've had since I've been here. All five guys have the potential to step up and be that lead dog. It says a lot for the depth of our rotation."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.