Commentary

Saunders tries to stay positive

Angels left-hander continues his struggles though Scioscia not ready to panic just yet

Updated: April 28, 2010, 3:11 AM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Joe Saunders was talking like a weather man after Tuesday night's 9-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians. The Los Angeles Angels left-hander figures these cloudy days of spring can't last forever.

"Tomorrow's a new day. The sun's going to come up tomorrow again," Saunders said. "If it burns through the marine layer, we're going to go from there."

The early part of the schedule has remained mostly foggy to the Angels. They get glimpses of sunlight -- little bursts of offense here, dashes of pitching dominance there -- but for the most part they're in the dark about how long it will take this team to come together.

It's built on a foundation of starting pitching, but so far it has been an untrustworthy base. It was Saunders who dubbed this Angels rotation a staff full of "No. 2s." But the facts haven't born that out. Saunders, for his part, has looked like a spot starter trying to hold his job.

[+] EnlargeJoe Saunders
AP Photo/Alex GallardoJoe Saunders gave up three runs and nine hits in five innings, but had the Angeles not turned three double plays it could have been worse.

After a rough outing Tuesday, he's off to the worst start of his career -- 1-4 with a 5.74 ERA -- and it wasn't sitting well with him.

"I think I'm 1-4 right now, for [goodness] sakes and, obviously, that's tough to swallow," Saunders said. "I've never been 1-4 in my life."

This isn't the first time Saunders has struggled to get things moving early in a season. A year ago, he was scuffling along before finally admitting he was feeling some tightness in his left shoulder. The Angels put him on the 15-day disabled list in August and he won his final seven decisions after he got back.

The Angels insist there aren't any parallels other than some ugly numbers.

"There's a lot of stuff right now that's been going in a negative direction for Joe, but all in all his stuff looks good, his arm speed looks good and, once he gets in sync he's going to get on a good roll for us," manager Mike Scioscia said. "This is totally different from where he was last year at this time."

The fact Saunders gave up nine hits in five innings doesn't quite describe his struggles Tuesday. The fact he allowed four walks doesn't do it either. The three runs he gave up only hint at it.

It could have been worse. Much worse. Had the Angels not turned three double plays in the first four innings, Tuesday could have been a lot like last Thursday against the Detroit Tigers, when Saunders couldn't get out of the third inning.

It seemed that every swing the Indians took resulted in something loud. Saunders needed a 1-2-3 double play to escape a bases-loaded jam in the second. He needed a sharp grounder to third to minimize harm with another double play the next inning.

His final pitch exploded off Andy Marte's bat, but it happened to bounce straight to Brandon Wood at third. Saunders' stuff looks unimpressive -- he has as many walks (10) as strikeouts in five starts this year -- and his location has been to the hitters' taste.

Saunders isn't alone. The Angels' pitching staff has been improving lately, but it has generally been ragged in the first month. The staff ERA (4.48) ranked ninth in the league entering Tuesday.

Dig a little deeper and the picture is this: The Angels are working with two effective relievers, Kevin Jepsen and Fernando Rodney, and two effective starters, Jered Weaver and Joel Pineiro. The relievers are overworked and one of the starters, Pineiro, is coming off his worst start of the year.

By the numbers

They kept saying all Wood needed was a bloop hit, but it turns out a line drive or two did the trick.

Wood entered last weekend with four hits (all singles) in his first 46 at-bats (.087).

Over the next four games, Wood has eight hits in 15 at-bats, including his first home run of 2010 in the ninth inning Tuesday off reliever Joe Smith. Wood has more than doubled his average, to .197, one point better than Mike Schmidt's average in his rookie season.

"Sure, he burned some at-bats to get to this point, but it's good to see him getting his feet on the ground," Scioscia said.

The man Wood is replacing at third base, Chone Figgins, ended Tuesday's game with the Seattle Mariners batting .183, right where Wood's average stood before the home run. Wood actually had a slight statistical edge. He was 11 for 60 (.1833). Figgins was 13 for 71 (.1831).

Trends

The middle men in the Angels' bullpen continued to struggle, with Matt Palmer, Brian Stokes and Scot Shields all fueling the Indians' fire Tuesday. One big culprit has been walks.

Jason Bulger walked the bases loaded in Monday night's game. Angels relievers have walked 49 batters this year, including three Tuesday. Only one team's bullpen, the New York Mets', has walked more batters than the Angels'. Asked to sum up that trend, Scioscia said. "Not good."

"We can't keep setting the table for teams," Scioscia said.

Scene and heard

When Hideki Matsui goes out, he doesn't draw a crowd. He brings it with him.

Matsui was invited to Disneyland on Tuesday afternoon for a photo-op and the 40 or so Japanese reporters who follow him daily tagged along to document it. Matsui rode the "It's a Small World," ride and posed with several of the park's characters in a 45-minute appearance.

Scioscia began his afternoon media briefing by kidding the Japanese reporters.

"You guys went to Disneyland and you're supposed to be working?" Scioscia said. "That's no good."

Quote of the day

"I'm staying positive and I'm going to give you 195,000 percent every time I'm out there." -- Saunders

Looking ahead

The shadows could be a problem in Wednesday's game, which starts at 4:05 p.m. The Angels have five more mid-week games that start at that time. They intend the mid-afternoon starts to be more accommodating to fans' schedules than the previous 12:35 p.m. starts.

The Angels had high hopes for Ervin Santana (1-2, 4.73 ERA) early in spring training, but the electric stuff he showed then has only been sporadically available to him this year.

"You're not going to have your 'A' stuff for 33 starts," Scioscia said.

The Angels face Indians sinker-ball specialist Jake Westbrook, who is 0-2 with a 5.82 ERA this season.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.