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It’s a Dream Start for Rookie

Times Staff Writer

The butterflies began tap-dancing in his stomach long before rookie Joe Saunders stepped onto the Yankee Stadium mound Friday night. The Angels arrived at their Manhattan hotel at 2 a.m. EDT Friday, and it was four more hours before Saunders finally dozed off.

“I didn’t get to bed until 6 a.m. because I was thinking of all the scenarios I could get myself into,” Saunders said. “Giving up grand slams, pitching a perfect game.... It was a mixture of everything” that made him nervous. “The talent the Yankees have, the fans, Yankee Stadium.”

With so much on his mind, how did Saunders get any sleep?

“I took some cough syrup with codeine,” the left-hander said. “That helped.”

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Saunders was a little jittery come game time, hitting Johnny Damon with a pitch to open the first inning, but he corralled his nerves enough to suppress one of baseball’s more potent lineups, giving up three runs -- two earned -- and six hits in six innings of the Angels 7-4 victory.

Maicer Izturis continued a torrid month with three hits, including a two-run home run in the third and a run-scoring single in the seventh, and is batting .359 (46 for 128) with 30 runs in 32 games.

Orlando Cabrera provided a key two-run double in the fifth, and Garret Anderson (second inning) and Vladimir Guerrero (eighth) hit solo home runs.

Scot Shields threw 1 2/3 innings of one-run relief, and closer Francisco Rodriguez struck out three of the five batters for his 29th save to preserve the win for Saunders, who improved to 4-0.

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“That was unbelievable,” Saunders said. “To go out to this mound and do so well, to get guys out ... that first inning, my left knee was shaking a bit. Hopefully, it didn’t show. But I kept the ball down and got the ground balls when I needed to. After I hit Damon and got the next three guys, it really calmed me down.”

Saunders didn’t give up a hit until Alex Rodriguez’s two-out single in the fourth and didn’t face his first true test until the sixth, when Derek Jeter and Bobby Abreu, with the Yankees trailing, 5-1, opened with singles.

Up stepped Rodriguez, the cleanup batter, and up went the decibel level in the venerable stadium, 54,450 fans stretching their vocal cords to the max. But Chone Figgins helped defuse the rally with a diving grab of Rodriguez’s liner to shallow center, and Jason Giambi bounced into a double play.

Sal Fasano’s two-run double in the seventh knocked out Saunders, but Shields, despite giving up Rodriguez’s solo homer in the eighth, and Francisco Rodriguez nailed down the victory, helping the Angels’ rookie starters--Jered Weaver (7-0), Saunders (4-0), Dustin Moseley (1-0)--improve to 12-0.

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“I don’t know,” Shields said, when asked why Weaver and Saunders have handled the pressure so well. “They have good makeup, they trust their stuff, and they don’t feel intimidated. That’s unusual.... I was a nervous wreck in my debut. These guys have been cool. And they pound the strike zone. That’s the most important thing.”

The Angels, who knocked the Yankees out of the playoffs in 2002 and 2005, improved to 52-49 against the Yankees since 1996 and have won seven of their last 10 games in the Bronx, where they are 27-21 since 1996.

For some reason, things seem to go the Angels’ way in Yankee Stadium, and Friday, struggling catcher Mike Napoli rode those good vibes. Napoli, mired in a three-for-43 slump and unaware he had lugged a broken bat to the plate, ended an 0-for-18 skid with a double to right-center in the seventh inning.

Napoli scored on Izturis’ single and was hugged by several teammates in the dugout. Batting instructor Mickey Hatcher bowed in reverence and gave Napoli the ball from his hit.

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“I had no idea,” Napoli said. “I broke a bat in the first inning, and the batboy left it in the dugout. I thought I hit it pretty good, but it felt weird off my bat. They said, ‘Did you know you brought a broken bat up there?’ Hey, whatever works. Maybe that’s what I needed. I’m going to tape it up and bring it back tomorrow.”


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