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Molina’s Numbers Need Asterisk

Times Staff Writer

A statistic in Sunday’s team-issued postgame notes made it seem as if catcher Jose Molina is on a tear, batting .356 (16 for 45) in his last 16 games. Not mentioned was the fact that those numbers were accumulated in the Angels’ last 42 games.

Molina started 30 of 53 games in the first two months, sharing playing time with Jeff Mathis in April and Mike Napoli in May, but Napoli’s potent bat has drastically cut into Molina’s playing time; Molina has started 11 of 39 games since June 1.

Strangely enough, the less Molina has played, the more effective he has been at the plate. Molina, one of baseball’s best-throwing catchers, was hitting .165 with seven runs batted in on May 24. He is now batting .231 with 13 RBIs, two of them coming in the Angels’ 7-5 victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday.

“It’s hard to keep your stroke when you’re not playing as much, but I know my role here,” Molina said. “I always stress defense over offense. Whatever I do with the bat is a plus.”

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The emergence of Napoli as the Angels’ starter will cost Molina more than playing time.

Molina’s 2007 salary is based on games played in 2006, with the potential for his base pay to increase from $1.25 million to $2.5 million if he starts 115 games this season.

Molina seemed upset about his diminished role in June -- he had backed up his brother, Bengie, for 3 1/2 seasons and went into the 2006 season thinking he would finally become a starter. But with Napoli having a .288 average, 12 homers and 29 RBIs through Sunday, Molina has no choice but to accept it.

“If I start thinking bad things or saying stuff about not playing, it won’t help me,” Molina said. If Manager Mike Scioscia “said I was the No. 1 guy and it goes the other way, then I’d be upset. But he never said anything like that, so you can’t be upset.”

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Joe Saunders joined the Angels and was activated after the game so he can start in place of injured Kelvim Escobar tonight. Saunders is 25, a little long in the tooth to be considered a “prospect,” and like many players stuck in triple A, he has wondered if a change of scenery might do him good.

“It’s a little bit frustrating because I know I can pitch at this level,” said Saunders, who was 10-3 with a 2.51 earned-run average at triple-A Salt Lake. “A lot of guys at triple A can play at this level, but there’s not a spot for them.

“People say you would have a better shot elsewhere, but you’re not just pitching for your team, you’re pitching for everybody.... The best thing for me to do is pitch my tail off and make it the hardest decision” for the Angels.

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Escobar, on the disabled list because of elbow inflammation, plans to throw bullpen sessions today and Thursday before returning to the rotation this weekend.... Jered Weaver, scratched from Monday’s start because of biceps tendinitis, played long toss Sunday and Monday and plans to throw in the bullpen Thursday in anticipation of starting this weekend.... Darin Erstad will have his injured right ankle examined by William Hamilton, orthopedist for the New York City Ballet, today in New York.


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