Saunders spins gem, stifles White Sox
Left-hander overcomes sickness to pitch 8 1/3 strong innings
CHICAGO -- This is no ordinary Joe.
Yet another extraordinary effort by Joe Saunders and a game-altering homer by Torii Hunter lifted the Angels to a 3-1 decision over the red-hot White Sox Friday night at U.S. Cellular Field, snapping their winning streak at eight games.
Saunders overcame the effects of sinus congestion and fatigue and transferred his recurring headache over to the Sox, holding them to three hits and without a run when he departed with one out in the ninth inning.
Francisco Rodriguez walked a man and was tagged for an RBI single by Jermaine Dye -- the run attached to Saunders' ledger -- before finding his "A" game and dismissing Jim Thome and Joe Crede on strikes for his MLB-best 20th save in 21 opportunities.
"I wanted this one, obviously -- you want all of them," said Saunders, who hasn't pitched a complete game in his 43 career starts while going an impressive 23-9. "You get that deep in the game, you always want to finish."
But he refused to second-guess manager Mike Scioscia, who was keenly aware of his pitcher's physical condition and how weak he'd been in Toronto two days earlier.
"Once he makes up his mind," Saunders said, "he makes it up. He made the right decision. He knows that I could finish the game, but he couldn't see me throwing more than 100 pitches regardless."
Saunders was one delivery shy of 100, with 60 of the 99 in the strike zone.
"His ball was sinking pretty good," Angels catcher Mike Napoli said. "He had late sink, and that's going to get ground balls."
Hunter's sixth homer, a 405-foot blast with one out in the fifth inning, was the Angels' first hit against Gavin Floyd. It stirred a three-run uprising and seemed to unhinge Floyd. He lost control of his slider and hit Maicer Izturis and Gary Matthews Jr. with pitches to force home the second and third runs after a single by Robb Quinlan around a pair of walks.
That was all the support Smokin' Joe and K-Rod would need, the Sox getting no satisfaction out of outhitting the Angels, 4-3.
"This guy is [8-1] for a reason," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said of Saunders. "So far he's done a tremendous job. He went out there and threw an unbelievable game."
Saunders matched Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka for the American League lead in wins, and his 2.31 ERA, third in the league, is also All-Star caliber.
The Indians' Cliff Lee is the only southpaw in the AL with numbers that measure up to Saunders' seven weeks into the season.
Asked if he could explain how he's become so good so quickly, Saunders first said, "I don't know," and then he offered an explanation that underscored an assertive posture born of confidence.
"I'm just going out throwing strikes, being aggressive," Saunders said. "I'm not picking as much. I'm really trying to go after guys."
Saunders' effort -- the longest of his career -- did not start auspiciously.
He fell behind former teammate Orlando Cabrera 3-0 and walked him on five pitches. When A.J. Pierzynski followed with a bunt that hugged the third-base chalk for a single, Saunders was thinking, "OK, this might be a tough night."
He took deep breaths and put away the heart of the Sox order -- Carlos Quentin, Dye and Thome -- in what he would call the three biggest outs of the game.
"I settled down, got some tough outs," Saunders said. "I was trying to minimize damage."
Double plays in the fourth and fifth were started by Quinlan at third, with rookie Sean Rodriguez making impressive turns.
The White Sox didn't have a non-bunt hit until Cabrera doubled with one out in the sixth. He didn't advance any farther.
Saunders had retired eight in a row when Cabrera banged a breaking ball into center on a 1-2 count to open the ninth.
"I think it would have been different if I got O.C. out," Saunders said. "Now I've got a new high -- 8 1/3."
Scioscia said Saunders had physical issues midgame, "coughing his way through one inning." Saunders recalled that he "had something in my throat, and I had to bend over and get it out of there."
Scioscia felt Saunders "sweated some of it out as the game went on" and actually got stronger as he extended himself.
Saunders said he was blowing his nose between innings, staying away from teammates in the dugout in the hopes that he wouldn't spread his germs.
"I didn't want to get them sick," Saunders said.
On the contrary, he has made his team nothing but healthy as one of the true success stories on the Major League Baseball landscape.
"Joe's been on good stretches before," Scioscia said. "He's pitched terrific baseball the last two years he's come up and pitched. He's capable. It's very important to us, needless to say, with what our rotation is like. He's one piece of that rotation we need every night. He's given us a chance to win every night -- and he's getting a lot of outs."
Two more on Friday night might have made Saunders feel more complete, but his statement was a strong one nonetheless.
This is one extraordinary Joe.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.