When the Anaheim Angels selected former West Springfield star Joe Saunders with the 12th pick in the 2002 draft, the left-hander jumped headfirst into his professional career.

Shortly after going 9-2 and throwing 97 innings in 2002, his final season at Virginia Tech, Saunders reported to the rookie league Provo Angels, where he appeared in eight games and threw an additional 32 innings. Before long he was promoted to lower Class A Cedar Rapids where he finished his season in style, going 3-1 for the Kernels and posting a 1.88 ERA in 28 innings.

Despite the impressive early numbers, the innings took a toll on Saunders's left shoulder.

"I took a little time off in the offseason and when I tried to throw again I couldn't," the 23-year-old said.

A trip to the doctor revealed a tear in his rotator cuff as well as a torn labrum, injuries that kept Saunders out of the 2003 season.

Hoping to regain arm strength, Saunders pitched in an instructional league this past winter. Although tentative at first, each start brought improvement and his hard work earned him an assignment to advanced Class A Rancho Cucamonga.

Once with the Quakes, Saunders decided he would no longer be hesitant.

"I just thought, I'm here and I'm going to let it go," he said. "My first game of the season with Rancho Cucamonga, I was throwing [my fastball] between 88 and 91 and I knew I was back."

Saunders has thrived this season. He went 9-7 for the Quakes with a 3.41 ERA before being promoted to the Class AA Arkansas Travelers on July 21. In two starts there, he is 1-1.

"Every time I go out there, I try to get the win," said Saunders, who helped West Springfield to the 1998 Virginia AAA state championship and compiled a 22-4 career mark at the school. "I am very proud of that."