PCL baseball: Big leagues fleeting for Bees pitcher
Joe Saunders' outward calm belies his competitive intensity - still waters and all.
On an emotional Friday night, for example, while his visage remained fixed on the catcher's glove, the big left-handed pitcher channeled his state of mind regarding the recent tragedy at his alma mater, Virginia Tech, into six shutout innings and a win for the Los Angeles Angels against Seattle, also breaking the team's six-game losing streak.
Although not wholly unexpected, a few days later, Saunders experienced an emotional jolt of another kind. Despite a 2-0 record and a 1.96 earned-run average, Saunders was told to pack his bags for Salt Lake City, because former Cy Young award winner Bartolo Colon was healthy again.
One can excuse Saunders, who starts today against Sacramento, for his frustration. He has seen this before. In 2006, Jared Weaver had pitched well for Los Angeles and was sent back to the Bees. Saunders can only hope the scenario runs completely the same way.
Weaver finished the season by going 11-2 for the Angels.
"I know my place," said an admittedly disappointed Saunders, who won 10 games in Salt Lake City last season and seven more for Los Angeles. "They didn't want to stick me in the pen, and that's good because I didn't want to go to the pen, either. Hopefully, I'll be a starter my whole career.
"They wanted me to come down here, get my innings in and still stay on a starter's routine. That's the breaks of baseball."
Apparently, Los Angeles wasn't too pleased, either. Quality left-handed pitchers who can consistently throw a good fastball and breaking stuff for strikes are difficult to come by.
"Our organizational depth is so strong, but it wouldn't be good for either of us to move him to the bullpen," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "It's tougher when he is proven, when we know that he is ready. He just needs to go down there and get stretched out, get his pitches in, and he'll be back."
If there is one part of 25-year-old's makeup that impresses the Angels and the Bees, it is the mental side of the 6-foot-3 pitcher selected in the first round of the 2002 free agent draft.
"Joe understands what's at stake," Salt Lake manager Brian Harper said. "If you don't know Joe, he kind of comes across as aloof, as if he almost doesn't care. He's a huge competitor who is real calm, which is a good makeup to have for the big leagues."
One trap door Saunders hopes to avoid was the kind that got Weaver, who was roughed up in his first start for Salt Lake after being sent down. Following that small burp, Weaver was untouchable.
"I hope to do the same, without the rough outing," said Saunders, knowing that it could be a week or months before getting another opportunity in an Angel uniform. "I'm a big believer in not worrying about what I can't control. I just want to go out there and get some wins for this team. I can't worry about a call-up."
It is Saunders' good fortune that he knows and has played with many on the current Bees' roster, including catcher Jeff Mathis.
"Joe's a smart kid," Salt Lake pitching coach Charles Nagy said. "He knows the situation; he knew it going into spring training. He also understands baseball is a business. He'll get another opportunity. Rarely does a team go through a year using just five guys [in the rotation]. That's when the game becomes mental."
Saunders' makeup allowed him to help digest the horror of Virginia Tech, watching on television as the death toll continued to rise. Not only did Saunders attend school there, so did his parents. Saunders also met his fiance, Shanel, at Blacksburg.
"I think I had a couple classes in that building," he said. "It couldn't sink in until a couple days later. It was everywhere on television. It really hit home."
Saunders asked and received permission from MLB Commissioner Bud Selig to wear a Virginia Tech cap during his start against Seattle. Saunders also drew the letters "VT" on the pitching mound and wrote them on his cleats.
"It was a real test of nerves," he said. The emotion was there. My main focus was to make the school proud of me and also get the Angels back on track. I wanted to give us a chance to win the ball game."
Los Angeles Angels infielder Chone Figgins will begin a rehab assignment with the Salt Lake Bees today at Franklin Covey Field. Figgins is expected to wear a Bees uniform throughout the remainder of the team's home stand, which ends on Sunday.
Figgins was placed on the 15-day disabled list on March 31 with two broken fingers on his right hand during spring training. A former Salt Lake Stinger, Figgins hit .308 in 193 games for Salt Lake between 2002-2003. He has averaged .285 for the Angels.