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April is just perfect for Saunders

Times Staff Writer

In their first 47 years in existence, the Angels had one pitcher who went 5-0 in April: Frank Tanana, in 1978.

They could have two this year. Joe Saunders finished his April at 5-0 on Tuesday, and Ervin Santana could do the same tonight.

Saunders and closer Francisco Rodriguez combined on a four-hit shutout Tuesday, carrying the Angels to a 2-0 victory over the Oakland Athletics.

The victory lifted the Angels back into a first-place tie with the A’s in the American League West, as Saunders’ earned-run average fell to 2.08, third in the league.

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In a spring in which the absence of John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar could have dropped the Angels far from first place, Saunders and Santana have kept them afloat.

“Just trying to pick up the slack,” Saunders said.

“Joe and Ervin have kind of matched each other pitch for pitch,” Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said. “They’ve really been the lead dogs for our rotation.”

Saunders has yet to pitch a complete game in the major leagues, and he’d best get a big lead to do so. For the fourth time in his six starts this season, Saunders pitched eight innings, then handed a save situation to Rodriguez.

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“That’s Frankie’s job,” Saunders said.

Rodriguez converted the save, his 11th, but not easily.

After Saunders walked one in eight innings, Rodriguez walked two of the first three batters in the ninth, putting the tying runs on base with one out.

Then shortstop Erick Aybar made two incredible saves, first going well into left-center field to catch a short fly ball by Emil Brown, then ranging well beyond third base to catch a foul pop by Bobby Crosby.

Brandon Wood, the third baseman, said he had no idea Aybar would be there, because the ball was not hit very high. As Wood extended his glove for a backhand try, Aybar soared past him and made a basket catch -- without injuring Wood or making contact with him.

“I appreciate that,” Wood said.

Gary Matthews Jr., the left fielder, appreciated the catch too, so much so that he lifted Aybar off the field, in a bearhug, before returning him to the ground so all the Angels could celebrate the victory.

“I just call him ‘Web Gem,’ ” Wood said. “He’s a heck of a shortstop.”

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Oakland’s Greg Smith did get his first complete game, a three-hitter, but he also got the loss. The Angels scored both runs with one hit, in the third inning.

Smith walked Wood on four pitches, and Figgins doubled him to third. Wood scored on a wild pitch, and Figgins scored on a groundout by Matthews.

Saunders figures to fall off his 30-win pace. But with that 5-0 start, he stands in club history with Tanana, a three-time All-Star.

“To be in that kind of company is very honoring,” Saunders said. “I’m proud of myself to be able to do that.”

Saunders will be proud of his first complete game, someday, but this would not be the day. The A’s did not get an extra-base hit off him, and they did not get a man in scoring position until the sixth inning. In the eighth, he went to a full count on the next-to-last batter of the inning and a 2-0 count on the last batter, and he was done after 102 pitches.

As he walked off the field, the crowd behind the Angels dugout saluted him with a standing ovation. He tipped his cap in return.

--

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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