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Joe Saunders sharp in Angels victory

There was the food poisoning that knocked him out for a weekend in late March, and a bout with spring-training “dead arm” that slowed him the last week of camp.

Joe Saunders seemed a little wobbly entering the season, which was actually an upgrade from the rest of the Angels’ rotation, three-fifths of which -- John Lackey, Ervin Santana and Kelvim Escobar -- is on the disabled list.

Then the curtain rose on the 2009 season Monday, and all that ailed Saunders and the rest of the rotation faded into an unseasonably warm spring evening in Angel Stadium.

Saunders gave up three hits over 6 2/3 innings, departing to a rousing standing ovation, and three relievers secured the final seven outs of a 3-0 season-opening victory over the Oakland Athletics.

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Second baseman Howie Kendrick atoned for a third-inning error by driving in the Angels’ first run with a single to right-center field in the third inning and crushing a solo home run to right-center field in the fifth to give the Angels a 3-0 lead.

Jose Arredondo got the last out of the seventh inning, Scot Shields retired the side in order in the eighth and new closer Brian Fuentes threw a one-two-three ninth for his first save as an Angel and 18th consecutive save dating to last season with Colorado.

It was the sixth opening-day shutout in the franchise’s 49-year history and first since 1978, when another Angels left-hander of some acclaim, Frank Tanana, tossed a complete game in a 1-0 victory over the A’s in Anaheim.

“It’s tough to beat this night,” said Saunders, who struggled early with his command but had good movement on his sinking fastball. “That standing ovation was really special.”

Saunders, an All-Star in 2008, when he finished 17-7 with a 3.41 earned-run average, joins Jered Weaver as the only returning lettermen in a rotation that includes Dustin Moseley, rookie Nick Adenhart and journeyman Shane Loux.

Saunders is 27, two years younger than Loux and the same age as Moseley, but he’s in a position to impart some wisdom on his less-experienced rotation mates. Saunders and Santana helped fill voids left by injuries to Lackey and Escobar to open 2008.

“The pressure makes you better -- it made Ervin and I better last year,” Saunders said. “We have three younger guys in the rotation -- heck, I don’t have much experience -- but to be able to help them is special. They just have to trust their stuff and throw strikes. Pitchers get in trouble when they fall behind.”

It helps to lean a little on your defense too. Center fielder Torii Hunter made running catches into each gap, the Angels turned a short-to-second-to-first double play to extract Saunders from a two-on, one-out jam in the second inning, and catcher Jeff Mathis helped snuff out a potential rally by throwing out Mark Ellis trying to steal third in the third.

Mathis also sparked a rally with a leadoff single against starter Dallas Braden in the third inning. Figgins walked with one out, Kendrick’s single drove in Mathis and moved Figgins to third base, and Vladimir Guerrero’s infield single drove in Figgins.

Saunders’ stuff improved as the game went on -- “Everything from his velocity to the crispness of his pitches to his arm speed,” Manager Mike Scioscia said -- and the A’s never really threatened after the third inning.

“It was a great effort from Joe,” Scioscia said. “He didn’t have the greatest spring, but his stuff was alive tonight. With some guys in the rotation banged up, it was important for Joe to give us a good game and set the tone.”

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mike.digiovanna@latimes.com


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