Saunders continues strong season

Photo by Jordan Megenhardt

By Greg Dillard

When a team has a pair of dominant pitchers atop its starting rotation, it’s easy to overlook the remaining three starters. In 2011, Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson have undoubtedly been dominant as the anchors of the D-backs’ pitching staff.

Then there’s Joe Saunders. The southpaw has been reliable and then some for Arizona down the stretch this season. After a slow start, he’s continually put the D-backs in a position to win every time he toes the rubber.

In 21 starts, the left-hander is 7-8 this season but owns a respectable 3.63 ERA. Saunders has been especially impressive throughout the month of July. He’s notched a 2.12 ERA in 34 innings of work. During that span, Saunders is 3-1, while opponents are hitting just .207 against him.

The veteran of the starting rotation was acquired by the D-backs last July from the Angels. Throughout his six seasons in Los Angeles, Saunders was one of the most reliable starters in all of the American League. He won 54 games for the Halos and was an American League All-Star in 2008.

That success and reliability has followed him to the desert.

Saunders was back at it once again in Tuesday night’s series opener against the Padres at Petco Park. His 21st start of the 2011 campaign turned out to be one of his most memorable.

Efficient from the start with his pitch count, he unleashed a dominating complete game victory, scattering six hits and shutting out San Diego for the first 8 2/3 innings of the game. By receiving several first and second pitchouts in the early innings, the lefty was able to finish what he started.

“I think efficiency-wise, it was really good,” Saunders said. “I got some early pitchouts. I got some second pitchouts, too, which was huge for my pitch count. Honestly, the defense was awesome behind me tonight. Miggy was doing his thing back there behind the plate and hats off to him.”

With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Jesus Guzman broke the shutout with a solo home run to centerfield. Saunders recovered quickly by retiring Chris Denorfia on a game-ending flyout to left field.

“Joe was great,” manager Kirk Gibson said. “I was kind of hoping he would get a shutout. He had a real good changeup tonight, throwing all of his pitches in all the counts. It was what we needed.”

Gibson also noted that Saunders’ efforts to improve his pitch efficiency are paying dividends.

“He’s been getting better recently,” Gibson said. “That’s really what he’s been working (toward). He came out and struck out four, only walked one. So he used the ballpark, and we picked the ball up fairly decent also.”

Saunders was particularly effective with his pitch count, and consistently threw strikes all night.

“For me, it was about pounding the strike zone and throwing strikes,” Saunders said. “Putting them on the defense rather than the offense … when you get yourself into trouble is when you start throwing balls and walking guys. So for me, it was about throwing strikes. My velocity wasn’t there tonight, but my command was there.”

The D-backs’ hurler needed just 99 pitches to seal the sixth complete-game performance of Saunders’ seven-year career.

“I’m just happy about the complete game,” Saunders said. “I haven’t gotten one yet this year. So hopefully we can keep it going.”

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