A kind word to describe Joe Saunders’ spring training and 2014 debut wasn’t very easy to find, but let’s go with uninspiring.
His Cactus League performances didn’t allow anyone to get dreamy-eyed at the start of the Texas Rangers’ season, and some folks were down right giddy when Evan Longoria’s line drive smacked Saunders in the left ankle April 4 and put him on the disabled list.
There are plenty of tweets out there to prove that last point, as well as another boatload of tweets from people dreading what might happen Wednesday night as Saunders came off the disabled list to start against the Minnesota Twins.
But take a moment to feel cautiously inspired by what happened at Target Field, as Saunders delivered five labor-intensive but scoreless innings to help the Rangers beat the Twins 1-0 in a completely unacceptable 3 hours, 12 minutes.
As expected, Saunders’ first start in seven weeks wasn’t easy. But many didn’t expect the veteran and former All-Star to leave the mound without a single tally against him.
If anything, the start provided something for Saunders to build upon after he settled into a groove after dicey frames in the second and third.
“It definitely was a good building start, for sure,” Saunders said. “I feel like it could have been a lot better, but it could have been a lot worse.”
Four relievers made Luis Sardinas’ two-out RBI single in the seventh stand. Among them was Joakim Soria, who blew his first save of the season Tuesday night in a 4-3 loss but took care of the Twins in order 24 hours later.
Closers, the saying goes, need to have short memories. So does the manager.
“There wasn’t any doubt that if there was a chance, he’d be out there,” Ron Washington said. “No doubt about it. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
It didn’t look like a 1-0 game was in the works early on as Saunders allowed a double on his first pitch to Brian Dozier, but the left-hander retired the next three Twins and left Dozier at third.
The second inning was even more taxing, as in 32-pitches taxing, as Saunders saw Twins reach second and third with one out. But he snared an Eduardo Escobar bouncer to the mound and caught Josh Willingham too far off third base for a big second out.
But Saunders walked No. 9 hitter Danny Santana to fill the bases and survived Dozier’s fly ball to the warning track in left-center that fell into the glove of Leonys Martin to end the inning.
“The first couple innings he was struggling to get his secondary stuff over the plate,” Washington said. “But he kept battling.”
The Twins collected consecutive two-out singles in the third but didn’t score, and Saunders suddenly found the form he found on his medical rehabilitation assignment over his final two innings.
He struck out the side in the fourth, his only perfect frame, and Saunders worked around a two-out single in the fifth as Kurt Suzuki flied out on his 97th and final pitch.
“I kept the team right where it needed to be,” Saunders said.
Shawn Tolleson (1-1) worked a scoreless sixth inning, and took a 1-0 lead into the seventh after Sardinas delivered Martin with a slicing single to left in the top half of the inning.
Tolleson then retired two of the first three Twins in the seventh, but needed Neal Cotts to strike out Joe Mauer to end the seventh with the tying run at second base.
After Cotts and Jason Frasor combined on a scoreless eighth, Soria struck out the first two hitters in the ninth and Adrian Beltre stabbed a Santana liner to end it.
“It’s always good to come back right away,” said Soria, who has nine saves in 10 tries. “You have to move forward. What happened yesterday happened. You don’t drag it into the next outing.”
Saunders, though, hopes to drag the final two innings Wednesday into his next start. There will be a next start for a veteran who spent seven weeks on the disabled list and wasn’t sure when or if he would pitch for the Rangers again.
He has earned another look. Be cautiously inspired.
“Once he starts to get a feel for his secondary stuff, he’s going to be even better,” Washington said. “Around the fourth and fifth inning, he started getting some of those off-speed pitches across the plate.
“He’s a veteran guy that’s been in the wars. It was nice to see him healthy and back.”