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08/19/07 6:53 PM ET

Saunders stifles Sox, gains series split

Angels lefty scatters six hits, strikes out season-high seven

BOSTON -- A ballpark that has been known to bring left-handers to their knees brought out the very best in Joe Saunders, who stood tall in Sunday's 3-1 decision over the Red Sox.

Ignoring the perils of the Green Monster and other Fenway Park features favoring hitters, Saunders shut down a Red Sox attack that had produced 23 runs in three previous games.

Justin Speier and Francisco Rodriguez provided vital relief, but this was Saunders' game, his challenge -- and he delivered just as handsomely as Ervin Santana had in the second game of Friday's day-night doubleheader.

Manager Mike Scioscia suddenly is feeling much better about the back of his rotation with the stretch run on the horizon.

"Joe pitched a terrific game," Scioscia said. "I don't think you can pitch much better against that group of guys. He kept competing, making pitches. He had contact on his terms today."

Heading home for three games with the Yankees starting Monday night at Angel Stadium, the Angels split four games with the Red Sox and finished a demanding trip with three wins and four losses, maintaining their American League West lead over surging Seattle.

"After losing the series in Toronto (2-1), it was important to either win or split this series," Rodriguez said, having struck out two of three men he faced for his 31st save. "That was huge for us."

Moving to 7-1, Saunders lasted 7 2/3 innings and was working on a shutout as he departed. David Ortiz had punched an opposite-field single against the shift -- three infielders on the right side of the infield -- and Scioscia summoned Scot Shields.

Shields walked Manny Ramirez, and Mike Lowell singled home Ortiz. In came Speier to strike out J.D. Drew looking on a full-count slider.

Saunders, striking out seven while allowing one earned run on six hits and two walks, advanced to 14-4 in his career. The Angels are 9-2 this year and 19-5 in his starts over the past two seasons.

Julian Tavarez slipped to 6-9 with the loss and spent his time after the game explaining an incident with Orlando Cabrera, who objected to a third-inning fastball that the veteran right-hander ran into the area of his rib cage.

Tavarez denied the Angels' contention that he'd vowed to hit Cabrera with a pitch after a game in Anaheim on the Angels' previous homestand, complaining that they'd been stealing signs.

Scioscia said it was a matter the league needed to look into, but the confrontation -- bringing players out of both dugouts -- wasn't nearly as interesting as a game seized by the Angels from a club they could meet in October with everything on the line.

"I'd love to pitch here in October," Saunders said. "It'd be a wonderful opportunity."

Saunders -- riding the Salt Lake shuttle all season as the emergency sixth starter until Santana slumped and an elbow injury sent Bartolo Colon to the DL -- is establishing himself as one of Scioscia's most dependable starters.

"The game plan against that lineup is to get ahead [in the count], and I think we did that great," said Saunders, working effectively with catcher Ryan Budde in the latter's third Major League start. "We put them in pitchers' counts instead of hitters' counts. I threw my curveball for strikes and tried to get a ground ball when I needed to."

The Angels scored twice in the first inning, and it could have been twice as bad for Tavarez if not for a spectacular catch by Bobby Kielty in his Red Sox debut.

Kielty reached the right-field fence, leaped and stole what would have been a two-run homer from Casey Kotchman, continuing the first baseman's run of bad luck.

Chone Figgins' leadoff single had opened the inning, and after Cabrera walked, Vladimir Guerrero punched a single to left to deliver Figgins, his 98th RBI of the season. Guerrero was 8-for-17 (.471) in the series with two doubles, a triple, a homer and six RBIs.

After Garret Anderson -- also hitting with lousy luck -- lined to center, moving Cabrera to third, Gary Matthews hit into a fielder's choice for an RBI. Kotchman then unloaded, and Kielty gave up his body to save Tavarez two runs.

The Angels believed they had another run taken away in the third inning. First-base umpire Bruce Froemming ruled Matthews out when a television replay indicated that he'd beaten Lugo's throw by a stride with runners on the corners and two outs.

It was Scioscia's second argument of the inning. He'd maintained earlier that Tavarez had done what he'd threatened when he came inside to Cabrera, wanting to make sure Saunders was allowed to throw inside.

The Angels took a three-run lead in the seventh when Kotchman led off with a double, took third on Maicer Izturis' single and scored on a wild pitch by reliever Kyle Snyder.

Before leaving in the sixth inning with a strained left hamstring, Erick Aybar made an impact with his defense, stealing a hit from Lowell to help Saunders get through a second-inning disturbance.

Howie Kendrick is expected to be recalled from Salt Lake for the Yankees series, Scioscia said, with an examination of Aybar's hamstring set for Monday.

Saunders rolled into the eighth, his only serious problem arising in the fourth when he struck out Coco Crisp to leave two runners stranded.

Saunders was aided by two fine running catches by Guerrero in right, on Ramirez in the sixth and Dustin Pedroia leading off the eighth.

"These guys have held up very well in pennant races before," Scioscia said. "I think the strength of the club is its mental approach -- and we're going to need it down the stretch."

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.