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September 3, 2008

Fatherhood, faith in his ability keys to Saunders' fantastic season

By: Jimmy Robertson

Joe SaundersJoe Saunders

This seems hard to believe, but back in late January, Joe Saunders was wondering if he’d have a job.

He probably spent countless hours pondering if he’d have a good-paying job as a member of the starting rotation of the Los Angeles Angels or be working for professional baseball’s equivalent of minimum wage in the minor leagues yet again.

Eight months later, he arguably ranks as the second happiest athlete in the world behind Michael Phelps.

The former Tech standout has enjoyed a gold medal type of season on and off the field, helping to lead the Angels to Major League Baseball’s best record and pitching for the American League all-star team on the field, while becoming a father for the first time off of it. Such successes show that Saunders is doing something right with his life, though obviously the latter trumps the former by a Josh Hamilton long shot.

“Obviously, I don’t get as much sleep as I used to these days,” Saunders said, referring to his newborn daughter named Matea. “But she’s a special, special person. It’s been an unbelievable experience. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Nor would he trade his season on the mound for anything – and fortunately, he doesn’t have to do so.

Saunders, who left Tech a year early after being taken with the No. 12 pick in the first round by the Angels in the 2002 amateur draft, entered spring training in early February battling with three other starting pitchers for the No. 5 spot in the Angels rotation. This list of challengers included Ervin Santana, a supremely talented, but often inconsistent, hard-throwing right-hander. But an injury shelved Kelvim Escobar (shoulder) and another injury delayed the season for John Lackey, thus all but forcing Angels manager Mike Scioscia to put Saunders in the rotation.

The left-hander has made the most of it, going 14-7 as of Sept. 1st, with a 3.67 ERA. He’s given up 159 hits in 164 1/3 innings, while striking out 79 and walking 47. He ranked sixth in the American League in wins and among the top 10 in earned run average.

“I think the key for me has been being more aggressive in the strike zone,” Saunders said. “I’m not nibbling or pitching at the corners. I’m using more of the plate early in the count. That’s allowed me to get quicker outs and to throw deeper into games. I think I’m showing them [Angels officials] I can pitch at this level.”

The Angels got a glimpse of Saunders’ talent back in 2006 when he made his first appearance in the major leagues. He made 13 starts in place of an injured Bartolo Colon and went 7-3 in those starts.

In 2007, though, Saunders performed a yo-yo routine, bouncing back and forth between the big league club and the Angels Triple-A affiliate in Salt Lake City. He went 8-5 last year with the Angels, with a 4.44 ERA, but in September, he went just 1-3 with an ERA approaching 7.00. He secured a spot on the Angels’ playoff roster, but never got into a game.

“It was tough,” Saunders said of last season. “They kept sending me up and down, but you have to remember I was replacing a former Cy Young winner [Colon]. I knew he was coming back and that I’d probably be sent back down.

“I understood that. You just have to bite your tongue and make the most of it. I just tried to stay positive and let everything work out.”

Saunders ultimately put the ending to the 2007 season quickly out of his mind during spring training and secured a starting job.
“My plan going in was to compete with Ervin for the job,” Saunders said. “I had worked as hard as I could to get myself prepared as much as possible. Then we had some injuries and I wanted to make the most of my opportunities. Now, I’m working as hard as I can to stay here.”

That appears to be a certainty given his all-star season. Saunders became just the third former Tech player to earn a spot on an all-star roster, joining Mike Williams (2002 and 2003, Pirates) and Toby Atwell (1952, Cubs). He got the nod after winning 12 games and yielding two or fewer runs in 12 of his 17 first-half starts.

He pitched one inning in the all-star game, which was held at Yankee Stadium – the final all-star game at that venerable venue. He got three outs on just 12 pitches.

“It was awesome,” Saunders said of his all-star experience. “It was the last one at Yankee Stadium, and the game was great [a 4-3, 15-inning victory by the American League]. I was nervous at first when I went into the game, but then I realized, ‘I’m out here for a reason.’ To be on the same field with a bunch of guys who are Hall of Famers, it was such an honor. It was humbling.”

That week turned out to be a whirlwind for Saunders. His daughter’s arrival occurred on a Saturday evening, just three days before the all-star game, and he didn’t want to leave his wife, Shanel – a former Tech softball player – and Matea. So instead of leaving Sunday, he took a late flight out and arrived in New York City only minutes before the Home Run Derby that night.

In spite of his incredibly busy schedule these days, Saunders and his wife still manage to keep up with the Hokies. He also talks to former baseball coach Chuck Hartman and former assistant Jay Phillips on a regular basis.

“We’d like to get back [to Blacksburg],” Saunders said. “I haven’t been back since 2004. But the offseason is busy. It could be tough getting back this offseason with a newborn, but we can’t wait to get back there.”

For now, he’s all about leading the Angels into the playoffs, late-night feedings and changing diapers. He plans on putting a ball in his daughter’s hand soon in hopes of molding her into the best athlete in a truly athletic family.

“She’s got a chance,” he said. “I might have her throwing in a year or two. I’m pulling for a lefty, as you probably know.”
He said this with a chuckle, a man at ease within his life.

And suffice it to say, his upcoming offseason won’t be quite as stressful as the last one.

Hokies in the Minors (As of Aug. 31st) 57 Kevin Barker (1B) – Barker continues to plug away with his baseball career after being drafted by the Brewers in 1996. He currently plays for the Louisville Bats, a Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. He’s hitting .258, with 20 homers and 74 RBI.

4 Warren Schaeffer (IF) – Schaffer plays for the Asheville Tourists, a Single-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies in the South Atlantic League. The former Tech shortstop was hitting .230, with three homers, 32 RBI and six stolen bases.

34 Ian Ostlund (RP) – Ostlund, a former Tech pitcher, plays for the Toledo Mud Hens, a Triple-A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers. The left-hander is enjoying a successful season, with a 3-0 record and a 2.45 ERA. He’s allowed 62 hits in 69.2 innings, striking out 77 and walking just 17.

24 Wyatt Toregas (C) – Toregas started the season with Buffalo, a Triple-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, but he was sent down to Double-A Akron of the Eastern League and is tearing it up. The former Tech catcher is hitting .297, with 12 homers and 35 RBI. He hit two homers and drove in 25 with Buffalo.