Tuesday May 20th, 2008

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana stood in the bullpen at Angel Stadium last Wednesday, three hours before game time, and pondered yet another radical change to their repertoire. Between starts, Saunders and Santana throw their bullpen sessions on the same day, with Saunders going first and Santana second. But Saunders, fresh off his only loss of the season, proposed a switch: Santana first, himself second.

"No," said pitching coach Mike Butcher. "You two are just fine the way you are."

Butcher, who has spent the past year tinkering with the mechanics and mindsets of Saunders and Santana, is apparently finished making alterations. His two talented works in progress finally look complete. Saunders and Santana, who went to spring training competing for the fifth spot in the Angels' rotation, are now anchoring it. They are a combined 13-2 this season, having won their first 12 decisions, and are the primary reason the Angels are in first place in the AL West and in good shape to win their fourth division title in the past five seasons.

Indeed, it is hard to find two more improved starting pitchers in the major leagues, and both of them happen to play for the same team. After Saunders wins a game, he seeks out Santana and says, "It's your turn." After Santana wins a game, he seeks out Saunders and says, "Now it's yours."

The Angels fully expected to have dueling aces. But they could not have predicted who the aces would be. John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar, firmly perched atop the rotation, racked up 37 wins last season. In games started by Lackey and Escobar, the Angels were a sterling 45-18. In games started by anyone else, they were a pedestrian 49-50. The Angels were so concerned about the depth of their staff that they traded shortstop Orlando Cabrera to the Chicago White Sox in the winter for starting pitcher Jon Garland.

The real answer was already in the organization. When Lackey and Escobar started this season on the disabled list -- Lackey with a strained triceps, Escobar with a torn labrum -- the Angels had no choice but to use the homegrown Saunders and Santana. Saunders, 26, was a former first-round draft choice with a knee-buckling change-up who spent last season bouncing between Anaheim and Class AAA Salt Lake City. "I was like a human yo-yo," said Saunders, who was called up and sent down four different times.

Santana, 25, was a former 16-game winner with a 95 mile-per-hour fastball who also earned a demotion to Salt Lake City last season, after going a ghastly 1-10 with an 8.30 earned run average on the road. "Getting sent down can be very frustrating," Santana said. "You never want it to happen. But it can help you refocus for your next chance."

Butcher watched both pitchers closely and noticed somewhat similar problems. When Santana, a right-hander, went into his delivery, he barely turned his left hip. When Saunders, a left-hander, went into his delivery, he barely closed his right leg. And that was just the lower body. Their arm slots also changed with each pitch, hurting command. At first, Butcher spent most of his time with Santana. Before games last season, the two of them would stand on the mound at Angel Stadium, Santana swiveling his hips and experimenting with different arm angles. When he found one that was comfortable, Butcher made him repeat it. After the season ended and Santana left for winter ball in the Dominican Republic, Butcher gave him one final lecture. In order to make it in the major leagues, in order to fulfill his potential, Santana had to apply the changes he had made.

"Ervin is very emotional, very passionate," Butcher said. "Early in his career, he out-stuffed people, but he lost a lot of feel. We wanted him to believe in himself again."

That is, if they did not trade him first. The Angels reportedly offered Santana to the Florida Marlins in a package for outfielder Miguel Cabrera, but the Marlins found a better deal from Detroit. Unbowed, Santana kept swiveling his hips and mowing down hitters in the Dominican Republic, combining on a no-hitter for the Licey Tigers.

Saunders stayed home in Chandler, Ariz., where he lived just a block away from Butcher. One day early in the offseason, Butcher's phone rang with an anxious Saunders on the other end. "I knew I would be going against Ervin in spring training," Saunders said. "I wanted to be ready."

Butcher and Saunders began a series of winter meetings on the field at Chandler-Gilbert Community College. When the field was locked, they jumped the fence. Butcher worked with Saunders on his leg turn and arm slot, but mostly, they just hung out and talked. "We talked about thinking the game," Butcher said. "When is the right time to go after a guy? When do you pitch around a guy? When is it okay to give up a run? If there are runners on second and third and no outs, you know the guy on third base will probably score. But what do you do to keep the guy on second from scoring?"

When Saunders arrived at spring training, no one needed to introduce him to his competition. He and Santana had been playing together since 2002, when they were at Class-A Cedar Rapids. But this was no time to reminisce about bus rides. The Angels' rotation would likely consist of Lackey, Escobar, Garland, Jered Weaver, and either Saunders or Santana. One of them would be heading to the bullpen, or worse, back to the minors.

"You never say an injury is a blessing," said Tony Reagins, the Angels general manager. "But it did give those two guys an opportunity they wouldn't have had."

When Lackey and Escobar went down, Garland and Weaver were the most logical candidates to replace them. But Saunders and Santana overshadowed Garland, Weaver, and almost everyone else. They became the eighth set of teammates since 1920 to start a season 6-0, and the first since Pedro Martinez and John Burkett with Boston in 2002. Saunders and Santana, linked as inconsistent prospects, are now linked in history.

"Those guys are pitching like aces," said manager Mike Scioscia. "But it's not just that they're pitching like aces. They have the potential to be aces."

Their lockers sit next to each other at Angel Stadium. When they are not talking about sports, they are talking about babies. Saunders's wife and Santana's girlfriend are both due in July, which makes you wonder if 4 a.m. feedings will slow them down.

By then, the Angels should not need them to be unbeatable anymore. Lackey returned to the rotation last week and Escobar is long-tossing without pain from 90 feet. Butcher can daydream about a scenario in which he has six top-tier starting pitchers available in September and October.

What order he puts them in is anybody's guess.

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