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No Ace in the Hole

Times Staff Writer

Can a team miss something it hasn’t really had? Check back with the Angels in eight weeks, after they go down the stretch without 2005 American League Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon, who was diagnosed Friday with a partial tear of his right rotator cuff and is out for the season.

The Angels trudged on Friday night, looking very much in need of a stopper. John Lackey, Colon’s heir apparent, walked six and got pounded for seven runs in 4 1/3 innings of a 7-3 loss to the Texas Rangers, dropping the Angels into third place in the AL West, three games behind Oakland.

Life without Colon, though, shouldn’t be much different than life with Colon, because the Colon of 2006 has been a mere shadow of the workhorse who went 21-8 with a 3.48 earned-run average in 33 starts in 2005.

Colon, who hopes to avoid surgery by undergoing an aggressive rehabilitation program that could stretch into 2007, was limited by arm problems to 10 starts this season, going 1-5 with a 5.11 ERA and never regaining the velocity on his fastball.

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Colon spent all winter rehabilitating from the shoulder tear he suffered in October’s playoffs and was fit enough to pitch in the World Baseball Classic. He opened 2006 with the Angels, but after three mediocre starts he went on the disabled list because of an inflamed shoulder and sat out two months.

The right-hander made seven starts from mid-June to mid-July, but Colon returned to the DL last week because of triceps tendinitis.

So, it’s not as if the Angels have lost their 2006 ace or have a sudden hole in their rotation -- they’ve filled a void for weeks with rookie right-hander Jered Weaver, and now left-hander Joe Saunders, who is 2-0 with a 1.93 ERA in two starts, will assume a permanent rotation spot.

“It might be different if Bart had been pitching well for a long time, but you could see this coming; he hasn’t been 100%,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “We were waiting for Bart to get back, to throw the way he could and give us a boost, but it hasn’t happened, so we have to settle in and play baseball.

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“It’s a big piece of our rotation that we’re going to miss, but we really haven’t had it for some time. We’ve adjusted, and we have to keep going.”

Though Colon will certainly be missed against Texas -- he went 10-0 with a 2.20 ERA against the Rangers in 2004 and 2005 -- the Angels still like their chances.

“Bart was the ace last year, and Lackey has filled that role this year, so Joe doesn’t need to fill a Cy Young spot,” second baseman Adam Kennedy said. “Joe seems to know what he’s doing. There are a lot of teams that would like to put him at the back of their rotation.”

Saunders got “a little taste” of pennant-race baseball in a spot start last Sept. 14, giving up six runs in two innings of a 10-9 loss to Seattle, but the 25-year-old feels more prepared this time around.

“I’m going to pitch my tail off for these guys,” Saunders said. “Knowing every game is important, that we’re in the hunt, there’s pressure. You have to come out with your best stuff every game.”

General Manager Bill Stoneman said Colon’s injury affected his decision not to deal either Ervin Santana or Saunders before Monday’s trade deadline. Though he will explore trades for pitchers, Stoneman does not anticipate a move.

“Missing a guy of Bart’s quality hurts, but the plus is we have Joe Saunders, who has already stepped up and now has a chance to pitch in the major leagues for a while,” Stoneman said. “In sports, it happens. One person’s misfortune can be another person’s fortune.”

Saunders can empathize with Colon’s misfortune. He suffered a rotator-cuff tear and detached labrum in 2003, missing the whole season, and, like Colon, chose rehabilitation instead of surgery.

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“It was one of the best career moves I’ve ever made,” Saunders said. “With surgery, I’m out 18 months, and who knows? I rehabbed from March to August and was pitching by October.”

Not until the spring of 2004, though, did Saunders regain his form.

“I didn’t have my velocity at first -- when I came back I was throwing 84 mph and was letting it go too,” Saunders said. “It was disconcerting, and my arm was hurting. But I kept rehabbing, kept throwing, and it came back.”

Pedro Martinez also opted for rehab over surgery after sitting out most of 2001 because of a rotator cuff tear, and the former Red Sox ace came back to go 20-4 with a 2.26 ERA and 239 strikeouts in 2002.

The size, depth and location of a tear determine whether surgery is recommended. Dr. Lewis Yocum, Angels team physician, pointed Colon toward rehabilitation, but the 33-year-old still has a long recovery ahead of him, and there’s a chance he might not be ready for the start of 2007.

“There’s always a concern when a pitcher has an arm problem, but linking that concern to next season might be premature,” Stoneman said. “We don’t have a timeline on it. Let’s see how the rehab goes.”


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