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Angels’ Sparks Supplies Sparkle

From Associated Press

Steve Sparks is proving that he’s a pitcher who throws a knuckleball, not just a knuckleball pitcher.

Sparks, a 33-year-old right-hander coming back from reconstructive elbow surgery, allowed five hits and three runs in 6 1/3 innings Saturday as Anaheim beat Texas 8-3 to increase its American League West lead to 1 1/2 games.

“Once I had the lead, I was able to change speeds a bit, use the fastball more,” said Sparks, who also beat the Rangers on Monday night. “I threw more fastballs for strikes.”

He allowed Juan Gonzalez’s two-run homer in a three-run first, then shut down Texas to set up the Angels’ fourth victory in six games against the second-place Rangers in an eight-day span.

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“These games mean a lot to us,” said Sparks, who allowed four walks and had two strikeouts. “You can say all you want that it’s early, it’s only June, but it’s the last time we play these guys until September, so these games count a lot.”

Gonzalez hit his 23rd homer to increase his major league-RBI total to 88.

“He is so strong,” Sparks said of Gonzalez. “To be honest, I thought he was able to muscle out that pitch in the second, too.”

Sparks referred to a drive with two men on that Anaheim left-fielder Orlando Palmeiro ran down at the wall at the 385-foot mark.

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It was the last time the Rangers seriously threatened Sparks (2-0), who blanked the Rangers on three hits over his last 5 1-3 innings as the Angels won for the 17th time in 20 games.

Sparks’ comeback is certainly going better than that of Todd Van Poppel, who struggled through two innings in his first start in the major since 1996.

Texas Manager Johnny Oates was clearly disgusted with Van Poppel’s performance after Rusty Greer’s RBI single and Gonzalez’s homer put him up 3-0 before he took the mound.

“We get those three in the first, then have to stand in the field for what seemed like 45 minutes. By the third, we’d lost all the enthusiasm I thought we’d come out with,” Oates said.

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Darin Erstad hit Van Poppel’s first pitch in the majors since Sept. 27, 1996, for his 17th homer, and Tim Salmon’s fielder’s choice grounder and Palmeiro’s single drove in two more runs.

“I went out there with the plan to just throw the first pitch down the middle. After Erstad hit it out, you just tip your cap and move on,” Van Poppel said. “But everything just fell apart. I know I’m a better pitcher than that, so I’m not going to get worked up over one start.”

Van Poppel departed after walking the first two men in the third, when the Angels took a 6-3 lead on Erstad’s force-play grounder and Dave Hollins’ two-run double off Alan Levine. In two innings, Van Poppel gave up five runs on four hits and five walks, with two strikeouts.

“You don’t make a decision based on one start,” Oates said, indicating Van Poppel will take his next scheduled turn Thursday against Arizona. “But he needs to get a whole lot better. What we saw today was unacceptable on the major league level--or on any level.”

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Phil Nevin added a two-run single off Scott Bailes in the eighth to make it 8-3.

Angel Notes

The Angels were suspension-free for the first time since June 9, when Manager Terry Collins, leading off the suspension rotation resulting from a June 2 brawl with Kansas City, sat out the first of his eight games. Reliever Mike Holtz completed his two-game suspension Friday night. . . . Disney stock slipped 5.9% on Thursday and Friday, and the loss was attributed partly to “softer than expected theme-park attendance.” Not at Edison Field, which Disney has promoted as Southern California’s “newest theme park.” Angel attendance is 261,861 ahead of 1997’s pace.

The Rangers’ Gonzalez has driven in seven of his team’s 10 runs in the first two games of the series. Last weekend at Arlington, Gonzalez drove in only one of the Rangers’ 16 runs as Anaheim took three of four games. . . . To make room for Todd Van Poppel, whose contract was purchased before the game from Oklahoma, the Rangers assigned catcher Rick Wrona to their Pacific Coast League team. . . . Texas’ Ivan Rodriguez, who leads the majors with a .361 average, singled in the sixth to break an 0-for-11 drought.

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