Santana still has an edge over A's

Times Staff Writer

That would have been some competition for the fifth spot in the Angels' rotation, had it ever materialized.

A tear in Kelvim Escobar's shoulder rendered the battle moot before it began, so instead of Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders fighting for a big league job, both opened the season in Anaheim.

And what a touch of serendipity that was for the Angels.

Santana continued his mastery of the Oakland Athletics, giving up one unearned run and four hits in 6 2/3 innings of a 6-1 victory at Angel Stadium on Wednesday night to run his record to 5-0 with a 2.48 earned-run average this season.

Only two other pitchers in Angels history have gone 5-0 in April. The first was Frank Tanana in 1978. The second was Saunders, the left-hander who improved to 5-0 with Tuesday's win over the A's and seems to be in a friendly game of one-upmanship with Santana.

"He's right on me heels, man," Saunders said, passing Santana in the clubhouse afterward. "Get outta here."

The last team to boast two pitchers with 5-0 records in April was the 1998 Texas Rangers, with Aaron Sele and Rick Helling. And to think, if Escobar were sound, one of these two pitchers, Santana or Saunders, would have started 2008 at triple A or in the bullpen.

"That's a hypothetical we don't have to look at right now," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "It would have been quite a dogfight in spring training.

"Our starters are doing a good job, and those two guys are leading the way."

The victory improved the Angels to an American League-best 18-11, and their 18 wins set a franchise-record for April.

Santana received a standing ovation when he was replaced by Darren Oliver with two outs in the seventh, thrusting both arms toward the sky and doffing his cap as he walked off the field.

The right-hander improved to 8-1 with a 1.25 career ERA against the A's -- he has given up only one earned run in his last 30 innings against them -- and further distanced himself from 2007, when he went 7-14 with a 5.76 ERA and was demoted to triple A in July.

Asked what has keyed his transformation from erratic to dominant, Santana said, "First-pitch strikes, get ahead in the count, and don't give credit to nobody."

Indeed, Santana, who threw first-pitch strikes to 16 of 25 batters, seems to be pitching with an edge, showing no fear of throwing inside. Wednesday, he put Emil Brown and Kurt Suzuki on their backs with knock-down pitches.

"I don't have to intimidate anybody," he said. "If the catcher calls for a fastball inside, I've got to go in. I don't want to leave it over the middle."

Casey Kotchman provided two big hits for the Angels, both off left-hander Dana Eveland, a pitcher the first baseman might not have faced last season because Scioscia usually sat him against left-handers.

Kotchman hit a two-run double in the second, a shot he slapped down the third-base line, and an RBI single down the first-base line in the sixth. He singled against left-hander Dallas Braden in the eighth, improving to .526 (10 for 19) against lefties. He's hitting .429 with runners in scoring position.

Kotchman's first hit, which followed Torii Hunter's single and Juan Rivera's double, gave the Angels a 2-0 lead, and Hunter's RBI single in the third made it 3-0.

The Angels broke the game open with a three-run sixth, in which Erick Aybar and Rivera singled, Kotchman doubled, Jeff Mathis executed a squeeze play that turned into a bunt single, and Chone Figgins hit a two-out, RBI single.


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