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More Than an Average Joe?

average joe

2008 was a fluke. There’s no way that guy pitches anywhere near the way he did last year. He’s nothing special.

Those were the grumblings Joe Saunders was hearing entering the 2009 season for the Angels, and I didn’t believe a word any of those critics had to say. For showing great composure and dependability in ’08, I thought they were just plain crazy for saying that.

Coming off of a surprise 2008 season that featured him being selected to the American League All-Star team, the expectations were high for Saunders, who was tabbed as the Opening Day starter for Mike Scioscia and the Angels.

Saunders finished the ’08 season with a 17-7 record and a 3.41 ERA, over 1 run less than his ERA for the 2007 season (3.44).

His Opening Day start against Oakland was nothing short of brilliant. Saunders scattered a mere 3 hits over 6 2/3 fantastic innings of scoreless baseball en route to an opening day 3-0 shutout of the visiting Athletics.

Joe would start the year by winning 6 of his first 8 decisions, while keeping his ERA at a pretty respectable mark of 3.26 through the first two months of baseball.

Then he would hit a prolonged speedbump.

His 6.06 ERA in the month of June was nearly twice as high as his ERA for the month before (3.12).

July would be even worse. His 8.08 ERA over the course of July would be more than 2 full runs higher than his dismal June numbers.

Saunders would hit a streak that ran all the way up to 8 straights starts in which he allowed 4 or more runs in a given outing (4 runs twice, 5 runs 3 times, 6 runs twice, 8 runs once).

His ERA would just about double over the course of three months, and it was starting to seem like Saunders’ critics somehow saw something bad in him that many Angel fans including myself didn’t see.

His August 7th outing would last not even 2 full innings, but Joe would still allow 5 earned runs.

Maybe he was just an “average Joe” after all.

Following that start, Saunders was placed on the Disabled List due to shoulder soreness that had been troubling him for a majority of the season. His tight throwing shoulder wouldn’t allow him to fully extend and follow through comfortably like he normally does with his mechanics, which led to decreased velocity and leaving way too many pitches hanging out over the middle of the plate.

Saunders would come off the DL and make his 1st start on August 26th at home against the Detroit Tigers. He’d throw 89 pitches over a carefully shortened outing that lasted 5 innings, giving up 2 runs on 4 hits while striking out 6 Detroit hitters. The Halos won the game 4-2, with Saunders the winning pitcher.

Joe would stifle the Mariners in Seattle in his next outing, throwing 7 innings of 3-hit scoreless baseball en route to a 10-0 Angels win. Saunders would, obviously, be the winning hurler in this contest.

His last outing against Kansas City would be his weakest ever since his return from the DL, but he’d still minimize the damage incredibly well. Saundo would scatter 2 runs on 10 hits over 5 1/3 innings of work, but would earn the win in a 7-2 Angels victory.

Since he’s come off the DL, Joe’s done nothing but win the Angels ballgames while allowing no more than 2 runs an outing. He’s given up 2 runs or less in each of his 3 starts since coming off the Disabled List. His previous 14 starts would feature only 2 outings where he would allow 2 runs or less.

He now has his ERA below 5.00 for the first time since July 22nd.

As much attention has been paid to the recent acquisition of Scott Kazmir and how he may be the missing piece that can solidify the Angels’ rotation, I think people are continuing to overlook the guy who was the Halos’ Opening Day starter.

Saunders doesn’t have to be the ace of the staff. Jered Weaver‘s had a fantastic year. John Lackey‘s rounding back in to form in a contract year. They can take care of occupying the #1 and #2 starter slots in the 5-man rotation. Saunders, if healthy and pitching the way he has the past few outings, could be a fantastic #3 starter to throw at teams.

It’s been a roller coaster year for the only Virginia Tech alum in all of the MLB, but if he can channel his 2008 style of pitching, rhythm, and composure, Joe will be the missing piece to the Angels’ jigsaw puzzle.

Not “can be”, he will be.

Time to prove the critics wrong one more time.

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Filed under Angel Stories, August Game Recaps, September Game Recaps

Halos Complete Sweep of Blue Jays, Start to Gain Momentum

hunter robThe Angels played host to the (first place?) Toronto Blue Jays for a 2-game series this past Wednesday and Thursday as well as the (first place?) Kansas City Royals for a 3-game set from Friday to Sunday. The Halos would split with Toronto and would then go on to earn their first 3-game sweep of any team this year (the Angels swept both Baltimore and Oakland in 2-game sets on their recent 8-game road trip however), with that team being the Royals.

Wednesday’s contest against the Blue Jays was dominated by Toronto’s ace Roy Halladay (6-1), who has been nothing short of spectacular this season. Doc would throw 8 innings of 1-run ball en route to a 13-1 thrashing of the Angels. Anthony Ortega would only last 1 1/3 innings for the Angels, giving up 6 earned runs. The bullpen would finish it out by giving up 7 runs in 7 2/3 innings of work (nothing out of the ordinary, right?). Howie Kendrick would be the only Angel to record multiple hits in the game, while the Blue Jays would have 5 players with 2 or more hits, and belt 3 total home runs on the game.

After Wednesday’s contest, it seemed like the Angels were in need of making a statement. At 12-14 on the year, decimated by injuries and still feeling the loss of Nick Adenhart, the Angels had a lot of bad breaks go their way, but Mike Scioscia‘s ballclub has never been one to make excuses. Their performance from top to bottom needed to step up and contribute in one way or another.

On Thursday, it was all about Jered Weaver, who was absolutely dealing in the series opener. In a 6-1 Angel win, Weav (3-1) would throw his first complete game, giving up only 1 earned run on 3 hits while striking out 8 Blue Jays. The thing that I was most impressed with was his ability to keep his pitch count low so he could go later into the game, something that he’s struggled with in his career thus far. It always seemed like Weaver was good for 6 innings per outing max, no more than that. In his last outing prior to Friday’s game, Weaver threw 102 pitches, lasting 6 innings. On Friday, Weaver would throw 1 more pitch than his last outing and go a full 3 more innings. 24 of the 30 batters he faced saw 4 or less pitches in their at-bats. His command was outstanding, and was just mowing down Toronto’s hitters (Toronto currently ranks 1st in all of the MLB in hits, runs scored and RBI, so this isn’t any cupcake lineup).

Mike Napoli and Kendry Morales would each hit their 5th home runs of the year, with each going 2-for-4 with 2 runs scored.

Figgy would go 3-for-4, and Maicer Izturis would collect 2 hits and 2 RBI.

The Angels now move to 1 game within .500 (13-14).

Friday’s contest would pick up right where Weaver left off (this would become a recurring theme for the weekend).

Matt Palmer got the start for the Angels, and would end up throwing 5 1/3 innings of 1 run ball, only allowing 2 hits, while striking out 5 and walking 3. Palmer (3-0) set the tone early and has been the one starter I least expected to be without a loss on the Angels’ staff more than a week in to May.

The bullpen would do a great job of closing it out, something Angel fans haven’t seen much of now that we’re more than a month into the season. Darren Oliver, pretty much the lone bright spot in that Angel ‘pen threw 1 2/3 innings of scoreless ball, followed up by 1-2-3 innings by Jose Arredondo and Brian Fuentes (SV-8).

Howie Kendrick would hit an inside-the-park home run (thanks to a terrible route that Jose Guillen took to the ball), which would help pad the Angels’ lead, en route to a 4-1 win. Izzy, Nap, Rivera and Kendrick would each have 2 hits on the game.

The Halos are now at an even .500 (14-14) for the first time since they were 3-3 through their first 6 games.

On Saturday, the ace of the Angels’ staff Joe Saunders would face off against the most dominant pitcher in the early goings, with that pitcher being Kansas City’s Zack Greinke.

Greinke was 5-0 with a 0.40 ERA (meaning he had allowed only 2 earned runs in 45 innings). He had thrown 3 complete games with 0 earned runs in 3 of his 4 previous starts leading up to Saturday’s match-up with the Halos.

The match-up would turn out to be a spectacular pitcher’s duel, with both pitchers throwing complete games. Greinke (6-1) would go all 8 innings, giving up 1 earned run on 4 hits, while striking out 5 (a season-low for him). Despite another brilliant outing from Greinke, he would get zero run support in return.

Saunders (5-1) would get the better of Greinke, throwing a dazzling complete game in which he allowed no runs on 5 hits, earning his 5th win of the season. Saunders would also strike out 6 and walk only 1 batter.

The only run of the game came off the bat of Chone Figgins, as he hit a sacrifice fly which scored Gary Matthews Jr. back in the 3rd inning. That’s all the offense Joe Saunders would need as he continues to show his critics that his 2008 All-Star season was indeed no fluke.

The Angels are now above .500 (15-14) for the first time since they won their Opening Day contest against the Oakland A’s, way back on April 6th.

And in the series finale on Sunday, Shane Loux and Kyle Davies were the starters for the Angels and Royals respectively, and had a lot to live up to following a brilliant pitcher’s duel from the night before.

Davies would pitch quite well, throwing 6 innings of 1-run ball, while allowing only 3 hits.

Loux didn’t look so hot on Mother’s Day, lasting only 3 2/3 innings while surrendering 3 runs on 7 hits before being replaced by Darren Oliver.

The Angels trailed the Royals 3-1 entering the bottom half of the 7th inning, when Jamey Wright would enter the game for Kansas City. Wright would make a critical throwing error on a tapper off the bat of Howie Kendrick, airmailing the ball into center field and allowing Mike Napoli to take 3rd base with 1 out. Kendrick would proceed to steal 2nd base with Jeff Mathis up, and Mathis would then knock a 2-run single into right field, scoring both Nap and HK to knot the game up at 3 apiece.

Erick Aybar would follow that single up with a single of his own, allowing Mathis to advance to 3rd on the play, setting up a 1st and 3rd situation with 1 out for leadoff man Chone Figgins. Figgy would lay down a beautiful sacrifice bunt down the first base line on the first pitch he saw from Wright, allowing Mathis to score, and giving the Angels a 4-3 in typical Halo fashion. Angel smallball at its finest.

The play of the day and one of the most spectacular catches I have ever seen would come in the 9th inning. With Brian Fuentes facing Miguel Olivo with a 4-3 lead in the 9th, Fuentes would leave one hanging over the middle of the plate, and Olivo would jump all over it, sending it to deep left center. Torii Hunter, who had been shaded towards right center field, got on his horse and bolted to left center, not taking his eye off Olivo’s blast once. His field awareness kicked in, measured out where he was, leapt up at the wall and brought back what would’ve been a game-tying home run, and displayed nothing but passion and intensity after the grab. Angel fans were on their feet and roaring in both praise and disbelief following Hunter’s magnificent home run robbery.

Fuentes would then allow a walk and a single, bringing up a struggling David DeJesus with 1 out and runners on 1st and 2nd. DeJesus would then hit into a game-ending double play, securing the Angels of a 4-3 victory, and pushed their record to 16-14 on the year.

I cannot fail to mention the stellar job the bullpen did Sunday, they were absolutely crucial to the game’s outcome. Darren Oliver put forth another great outing, only needing 20 pitches to complete 2 1/3 innings of work, pushing his ERA to an impressive 1.42. Scot Shields, who had been erratic all season long, threw 2 innings of scoreless ball, followed up by Fuentes’ 9th save of the year (which in all likelihood would have been his 3rd blown save of the year if any other person on this planet was playing center field at that time in the 9th).

Either way, the Angels are 2 games over .500 for the first time all season, and seem to be picking up steam as they have won 7 of their last 8 games.

John Lackey will be returning back to the Angels’ staff soon, and Ervin Santana may join the Halos on their upcoming road trip.

These are encouraging signs because the Angels can only get better with those 2 All-Star hurlers back in the mix, and the Angels are finally beginning to play like the way I knew they could coming into this season.

The Angels have a 3-game set with the Boston Red Sox from Tuesday through Thursday, and then take to the road for a 10-game road trip where they’ll face the 1st place Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, and the freeway foe (and now Manny-less) Los Angeles Dodgers.

Go Halos!

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Filed under Angel Stories, May Game Recaps