ANAHEIM, Calif. – It all has come fast in Joe Saunders' 28th summer, the baby girl and the Yankee Stadium All-Star game separated by just a few days, the rest spread over most of a season now.
He had pitched six innings and allowed a run to the Baltimore Orioles the night before, the bullpen pitching him out of the win, which would have been his 15th in 20 decisions. But, hey, Joe Saunders had stood and offered his hand to the men who had tried, his Angels had won anyway, and for the 70th time already.
He has ridden those muffled changeups and darting fastballs, lived on that persuasive arm speed and every once in a while something in the vicinity of 94 mph, and then what one big-league scout called "thinkability," which is how Saunders knows when to throw what. And where to throw it.
Maybe you haven't heard much about Joe Saunders, this left-hander who 4½ months ago was auditioning for the last job in the Angels' starting rotation, who heading into mid-August stands in the company of Cliff Lee and Mike Mussina and Roy Halladay.
And that's fine by Joe Saunders, the unassuming former first-rounder from Springfield, Va., son of a father who is an architect and a mother who was an athlete, Joe growing to become a disciple of the strike zone, a believer in the baseball journey.
"I like it that way," he says, elbows on his knees, eyes on the back of his locker at Angel Stadium. "I like to fly under the radar. I don't like the big hype all the time."
And he turns and smiles, and says, "But, you know, this ain't all bad either."
In his first full major-league season, he hasn't allowed more than three runs in a start since early June and has lost once since the end of June. Monday night's start was typical enough, the Orioles ending all but two at-bats by putting the ball in play, but only a few with any authority. Saunders had lived again on the ends of their bats, or on their handles. Kevin Millar had spent the night reaching for changeups, getting his lone hit after Saunders was gone.
"Glavine," he said of Joe, referring to Tom, the lefty who has won 305 games, "was the same way. You never hated facing Glavine. But, when it was over, you got a nice, competent oh-for-four. It's the way lefties are. The good lefties."
Second in the American League in wins, Saunders is 44th in strikeouts. He throws 3.75 pitches per batter, 15 pitches per inning, hits the bats and applauds his fielders. So after 55 career starts spread over parts of four seasons, staggered around round trips to the minor leagues, Saunders is 29-13 and his ERA is 3.97.
Saunders' mother, Mary Ellen, played softball and basketball in high school, Saunders said. His father, Joe Jr. (Joe is the third Joseph Francis Saunders), was the one with the bucket of balls for batting practice, the fungo bat for infield practice and, Saunders said with a grin, the catcher's mitt for beginning breaking balls.
"I think he's still got some scars," he says.
Now it's all about the pitching, so much so that his pitching coach, Mike Butcher, stood up for him when he married his college sweetheart, Shanel, last August. So much so that three days after his first child, Matea, was born last month, he threw a scoreless third inning for the American League All-Star team almost 3,000 miles away. In that time, he flew from Anaheim to Texas to Anaheim to New York and back to Anaheim, 10 days of commuter Pong he calls, "Kind of a surreal week. The most hectic – and best – week of my life."
Put all the weeks together, and Saunders is one of the reasons the Angels can start lining up their starters for the playoffs any day now. The offense can be spotty, the defense has its clumsy moments and the bullpen isn't always so tight, but the rotation is as reliable as they come. Saunders, by a little, has been the best in it.
"The key to that is, whatever you throw up there you have to be smart about," he says. "The strike zone is small enough these days. You have to make good pitches."
In scouting parlance, he pitches to the scouting report, and rarely deviates or gives in. He's a fighter who won't be knocked off center by a loud inning. Asked if Saunders is really this good, like 14-5 good, one AL scout answered, "Yes and no," which is Saunders exactly. His stuff is less than dominant. His commitment to what he has – the sneaky fastball that occasionally can be overpowering, the signature changeup, the reasonable breaking balls – is dominant. He's around the plate, but typically not in the middle of it.
"When you're dealing with the left-hander who can command the two-seamer away and down, that's enough juice to get people out," Millar said. "And that changeup is above average."
In fact, that changeup means right-handers don't hit him as well as left-handers do, and left-handers haven't done much with him, either.
All of which is fine, Saunders said. But not everything.
"The journey is the constant grind," he says. "Working your tail off in the offseason. Working your tail off in the season. That's the journey. And then throwing up decent numbers. You pitch every day you can. And have as much fun as you can. We have a special gift. We should enjoy it because you never know how long it's going to last. I look at it every day knowing I'm going to wake up and go to the park. I appreciate that. I can't be happier. I feel so fortunate."
In fact, a high school guidance counselor once asked Saunders, an average student, what he wanted to do with his life.
"I want to be a pro baseball player," he told her.
"Let's try to think of something more realistic," she told him.
He had no backup plan.
"I'm sorry," he said. "Take it for what it is."
That was 10 summers ago.
"Yeah," he says, "it's been a journey."
- Joe Saunders