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Saunders gets to stay for a while

Times Staff Writer

Joe Saunders has spent more time going up and down this season than an elevator inside a tall building. Or at least it seems that way.

The left-hander opened the season with the Angels as an injury replacement and made three starts, winning two, before being sent down to triple-A Salt Lake. He returned to the major leagues in early June when Bartolo Colon experienced triceps tendinitis and logged a victory against Baltimore before going back to the minor leagues.

He came back for a third stint in late June when Jered Weaver injured his shoulder and pitched six solid innings against Pittsburgh before resuming his season with Salt Lake.

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Now, Saunders hopes he’s back in the majors for good.

At the very least, Saunders knows that he will have more than one start in place of the struggling Ervin Santana, who was demoted to triple A to work on his deficiencies.

“It feels nice to have that luxury,” said Saunders, who is scheduled to start Sunday against the Minnesota Twins. “Even if you have a bad start, you can redeem yourself the next time. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen and I go out here and stay aggressive and get some wins.”

Saunders has mostly succeeded with the Angels. He went 7-3 with a 4.71 earned-run average last season and is 3-0 with a 2.97 ERA in 2007.

“I think they know now that I can pitch at this level,” Saunders said. “I have to go out there and still prove it.”

Manager Mike Scioscia would not commit to a specific number of starts in the majors for Saunders or in the minors for Santana, who is scheduled to start for Salt Lake on Sunday.

“We’re not going to script it,” Scioscia said. “We’re going to see where we are and we’ll adjust down the road for what’s the best look for our rotation and our team.”

Saunders acknowledged being a little frustrated by his role as an insurance policy against injury or ineffectiveness, “but you just kind of come to realize that you just have to play the role.... Getting an opportunity, you have to take advantage of it and make the most of it.”

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Scioscia dropped Reggie Willits from the top of the order to the bottom in response to his month-long struggles, putting Chone Figgins in the leadoff spot for the first time since July 1.

Orlando Cabrera, who ended an 0-for-17 skid with a first-inning single, moved up one notch to No. 2 and Vladimir Guerrero hit third.

Willits grounded into a double play in the second inning, had a sacrifice in the fourth and finished 0 for 3. He is hitting .163 this month, and Scioscia says he senses that the switch hitter is especially pressing batting left-handed.

“He still has the ability to work counts, which is important,” Scioscia said. “But the left side, right now his timing’s a little bit off. He is seeing pitches, but when he’s getting a ball to hit he hasn’t been able to square it up as well.”

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Second baseman Howie Kendrick is scheduled to have additional X-rays on his broken left index finger this weekend, with the Angels’ medical staff formulating a timetable for strengthening exercises based on the results. ... Reliever Chris Resop, on the disabled list because of triceps tendinitis, threw long toss and could begin a rehabilitation assignment sometime next week.

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ben.bolch@latimes.com


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