Saunders Enjoys First Visit to 'Home' Park

By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 24, 2008

When Joe Saunders was growing up in Springfield, he traveled to Baltimore to watch live baseball. The Los Angeles Angels pitcher spent his childhood rooting for Mike Mussina and Cal Ripken of the Orioles, never able to catch a Metro ride to a Washington ballpark.

So last night when he looked at Nationals Park, the pristine stadium in Washington that didn't exist during his youth, the moment wasn't lost on him.

Saunders won't start in this series after earning his American League-leading 11th win on Saturday against the Philadelphia Phillies, a note he wished was different but one that won't diminish his homecoming.

"I've seen everything, seen all the monuments, been everywhere," Saunders said. "It's just nice to be home, to see where you grew up, to see your home surroundings."

The homecoming started on Sunday night in Silver Spring, where his mother now lives. She cooked Saunders Chicken Alfredo and was planning to be in the stands for last night's game. Saunders also expected high school friends still living in the metro area to attend. He said his coaches from West Springfield High School would come to tonight's game.

Were friends and family able to catch Saunders in action this week, they would see a pitcher who has transformed himself into one of the best in baseball this season. At 11-3 with a 3.03 ERA, Saunders appears to be a worthy candidate for the All-Star Game on July 15. It's been an unlikely ascension for a pitcher who didn't enter spring training with a secured spot in the Angels' starting rotation.

He spent much of the past two seasons shuffling between the Angels and Class AAA Salt Lake City. Earning a spot in the rotation -- and keeping it -- has been in part due to the confidence received from opening the season as an Angels starting pitcher.

"Joe's shown spurts of throwing the ball well for us the last couple years," Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said. "But being in our rotation from Day One and knowing he's going to pitch in our rotation has given him the opportunity to go on a run like this."

Saunders, a Virginia Tech product who entered the season with a 15-8 career record, credited his 2008 success to an altered approach emphasized during offseason workouts with pitching coach Mike Butcher.

"In the past I used to nitpick a little too much and go deeper into counts," Saunders said. "This offseason we really focused on being aggressive in the strike zone early and not worrying about where the pitch is."

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