Joe Saunders took a significant step in his return from shoulder tightness, throwing 55 maximum-effort pitches during a three-inning simulated game in the Rogers Centre bullpen Friday.
If the Angels left-hander feels as good after a similar workout Sunday or Monday, he will rejoin the rotation later in the week.
"This is the best I've felt since last year," said Saunders, who has benefited from an Aug. 8 cortisone shot and some rest. "I long-tossed farther than I ever have for four out of five days, and my arm has responded great. There's no tightness, no soreness, knock on wood. I'm ready to get back out there."
Saunders was an All-Star in 2008, when he was 17-7 with a 3.41 earned-run average, but he has struggled to find consistency in 2009, going 9-7 with a 5.33 ERA in 23 starts before going on the disabled list. His shoulder, he admitted, was not right coming out of spring training.
"Some days were better than others, but it was never 100%," Saunders said. "There were degrees of being good, kind of good or not good at all. For any athlete, when you know there's a problem, it's going to affect your performance. For me, it affected my velocity and command."
Is it possible that Saunders, now that he feels sound, could recapture his 2008 form and provide a boost to the Angels' sagging rotation?
"That's what I have in my mind, to get back to what I did on a consistent basis last year," Saunders said. "I'm excited to get back out there and get after it."
Asked if he saw a noticeable difference in Saunders on Friday, Manager Mike Scioscia said, "Absolutely. His arm speed was much better. He felt really good about it, and I know [pitching coach Mike Butcher] was excited."
Shortstop Erick Aybar will try to be a little more careful on the Rogers Centre artificial turf this weekend.
It was in Toronto on May 20, 2008, that Aybar dived to his left for a grounder and dislocated the pinkie on his right hand, an injury that sidelined him for almost a month.
"I caught the ball and threw to first," Aybar said. "Then I looked at my finger and said, 'Oh, damn.' "
The injury came on a play Aybar really had no chance of making.
"I have to be smarter about when to dive here," said Aybar, who entered Friday with a .310 average and has been one of baseball's top defensive shortstops. "I don't want to hurt myself."
Bobby Abreu, who is hitting .311 with 81 runs batted in, did not start, but the right fielder is fine. Scioscia wants to give each of his starting outfielders -- Abreu, Torii Hunter and Juan Rivera -- at least one day off on the turf.
With rookie left-hander Marc Rzepczynski pitching for Toronto, it was a good night for Abreu to take a break. Rivera moved from left field to right, and Robb Quinlan started in left. Abreu grounded out to end the game as a pinch-hitter.