ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) -- Joe Saunders had four stints with the Los Angeles Angels last season, making a combined 14 spot starts because of injuries to other pitchers. The way he's pitching now, he may never see a minor league field again -- unless it's for a rehab assignment.
Saunders outpitched Greg Smith to remain undefeated in six starts, and the defending AL West champions beat Oakland 2-0 on Tuesday night to climb back into a first-place tie with the Athletics for the division lead."Last year was a good learning lesson," Saunders said. "Everybody told me through high school and college that it's not as hard to make the big leagues as it is to stay in the big leagues."It was humbling in the fact that I was pitching good last year and was still being sent down. It was disappointing, getting sent down, but I knew I was filling in for a Cy Young winner [Bartolo Colon]. So you have to look at the company I was in last year."Saunders (5-0) combined with Francisco Rodriguez on the Angels' second shutout victory this season, scattering four hits over eight innings with five strikeouts and a walk. The left-hander, now 12-1 in his career after an Angels loss, gave the bullpen a much-needed rest following Monday's 14-2 defeat."During the first three innings I was getting up in the zone a little bit and that was creating flyballs, and that's really not my game," Saunders said. "But I settled down and kind of locked myself in and said, 'Hey, their guy is pitching great, too, so I've got to focus on throwing up as many zeros as I could.'"Saunders joined Frank Tanana as the only pitchers in the franchise's 48-year history to go 5-0 in April. Tanana accomplished the feat in 1978, three years and two months before Saunders was born. Tanana finished that season 18-12."I was trying to get off to a great start," Saunders said. "With John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar going down with injuries, I had to really contribute early on and try to pick up the slack."The Athletics got only one runner as far as second base until the eighth, when Donnie Murphy led off with a single and advanced on Chris Denorfia's sacrifice bunt. But Rajai Davis grounded out to shortstop, keeping Murphy pinned at second, and Saunders retired Kurt Suzuki on another grounder to short after a visit from pitching coach Mike Butcher."He got 2-0 on him and I didn't want him to get careless and think that he's got a base open," Butcher said. "So basically I told him, 'The runner at second base means nothing. You've got to get this guy out right here.' That was the ballgame right there, really, and that was the guy we had to go after. So I wanted him to be aggressive and attack the zone like he was throughout the game."Oakland DH Frank Thomas was impressed by Saunders' aggressiveness, his control and the way he mixed up his pitches."He's 5-0 for a reason," Thomas said. "He was fading the ball away, and that's a little different than he did in the past when he was really pounding it in. He had good movement tonight with his changeup and breaking ball. He pitched out of some jams, and that's why he's doing so well this year. It looks like he's confident with his pitches right now."Rodriguez pitched another nail-biting ninth for his major league-leading 11th save after walking two of his first three batters. He retired Athletics RBI leader Emil Brown on a popup and got the final out with a help of shortstop Erick Aybar, who raced toward the left field stands and made an over-the-shoulder grab of Bobby Crosby's popup.Smith (2-1) allowed two runs and just three hits over eight innings as he went the distance for the first time in five big league starts. The left-hander struck out five and walked three."The bottom line is, we lost the game," Smith said. "I feel like I didn't do the job, but I pitched effectively."Smith got six of his first seven outs on grounders before giving up two runs in the third. He issued a one-out walk to No.9 hitter Brandon Wood, who took third on Chone Figgins' double and scored on a wild pitch. Figgins came home on a hard grounder up the third base line by Gary Matthews Jr., who was robbed of a hit by Murphy's diving stop behind the bag.
After the game, the Angels recalled 3B Matt Brown from Triple-A Salt Lake and optioned C Bobby Wilson back to their PCL club. But the day wasn't a total loss for Wilson: He got an autographed ball before batting practice from Goose Gossage, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on July 27. ... The game was played in 2 hours, 9 minutes. ... Lackey, making his second minor league rehab start with Class-A Rancho Cucamonga after opening the season on the disabled list with a strained triceps, allowed a run and three hits and struck out two. He threw 34 pitches before a power failure hit the Lancaster, Calif., ballpark, then threw a 26-pitch simulated game in the bullpen. ... Smith recorded his fourth pickoff already this season when he caught Aybar leaning too far in the fourth. No Oakland pitcher had more than two pickoffs all of last season. ... Saunders has a 7-0 career record in April with a 2.04 ERA.