10/02/09 1:00 AM EST
Saunders learning to listen to his body
Spends time on the DL this season after pitching with injury
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
There is nothing shy about Joe Saunders, who sought the advice and sage counsel of one of the heroes of his youth, Randy Johnson, when the Angels were in San Francisco in June during Interleague Play. Broadcaster Rex Hudler, a longtime friend and former roommate of the Big Unit, made the introductions."He was really genuine and gave me a lot of information," Saunders said. "He was one of my idols, so it was a pretty big deal for me. "I asked him stuff about his workout routine, what he did that allowed him to pitch for so long. He gave me tips, inside stuff. He was very gracious about it." There was something Saunders had to learn on his own this season, something that didn't hit home until several months later. Pitching in pain is one thing; all pitchers do it to some degree. Pitching with an injury is something else. Saunders crossed the line this season, trying to be physically stronger than his body would allow. It began all the way back in Tempe, Ariz., during Spring Training. Kelvim Escobar was recovering from shoulder surgery -- he would return for one start and shut it down -- and John Lackey and Ervin Santana were experiencing arm issues that would delay their season by six weeks. Saunders, an All-Star in 2008 after serving as the club's sixth starter the previous two seasons, saw how shorthanded the rotation was and kept it to himself when he started to experience some shoulder issues that hung around like an uninvited, unwanted guest. "It was a tough time in Spring Training," Saunders said. "I wasn't feeling that good. We had guys going on the DL. I thought to myself that this team couldn't afford to have another starting pitcher go down. "Sometimes it would feel better than other times. There would be a start when I felt good and then not good, and then bad. I knew something wasn't right." It was getting worse, not better, as the season progressed, and media and fans wondered what happened to the All-Star lefty from '08. Was his great season a mirage? "As a competitor and a baseball player, you never want to say you're hurt and can't do this," Saunders said. "Early on, in April and May, I was probably 70 percent. Then in June and July, it was even less." Saunders finally went to manager Mike Scioscia, who naturally wasn't pleased to learn his pitcher had been concealing an injury. The Angels shut down Saunders on Aug. 6, letting him rest in the hope that a knot in his shoulder would disappear. Twenty days later, he was reactivated, and he's 6-0 in seven starts since his return, his ERA is 2.42 during the stretch. He could work Game 4 of the American League Division Series against the Red Sox in Boston. He'd given up five earned runs in just 1 2/3 innings against the Rangers when he decided he couldn't go on this way, grimacing with the memory. "It was about me being honest with the club," Saunders said. "I wasn't honest with myself, my family or the organization. I've learned my lesson. "If I had taken time off in Spring Training to make sure I was right, or earlier in the season, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble." Someday, perhaps, when he's a highly respected craftsman and blessed with the wisdom of his years, he'll pass along that advice to another young, wide-eyed lefty looking to find his way. The Big Unit, who earlier in his career gained valuable insights from Nolan Ryan, will nod approvingly.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.