Angels overcome blown lead, Saunders

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- After dropping the first two games following the All-Star break, the Seattle Mariners threw their share of punches Saturday night. Hard line drives, home runs, loud outs -- all of it coming from the soft-hitting team with the worst batting average in the American League.

The Mariners were serious, even battling back from an early five-run deficit to tie it in the seventh inning.

The equalizer came after Los Angeles Angels starter Joe Saunders left the game, but even though he left with a lead, the left-hander wasn't necessarily fooling anyone. It sure didn't seem as if Saunders had won his previous seven decisions against Seattle -- even though he had.

"I just made some bad pitches," Saunders said after the Angels' 7-6 win. "I felt, maybe, a little bit too good. The ball was up a bit and that's when they tended to hurt me."

The Angels need Saunders just as much as they need ace Jered Weaver, at least if they hope to catch the Texas Rangers in the AL West standings. His stuff looked good at times. He mixed well by combining a low-90s fastball with the complimentary off-speed pitches. Saunders' problem was catching too much of the plate, something even the woeful Mariners cashed in on.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia said he thought Saunders was plagued by two things.

"He had trouble getting command of counts early," Scioscia said. "I don't know if he was pitching like he could. When he was trying to get the ball into the zone, he got a little too much of the heart of the plate. He wasn't real sharp, but he kept us in the game."

He nearly didn't. With the Angels preserving a 6-1 cushion to start the fourth, Saunders gave up back-to-back doubles to Franklin Gutierrez and Jose Lopez, prompting a mound visit from pitching coach Mike Butcher. The brief chat didn't help much. Saunders went on to surrender three more singles -- which got Scot Shields up in the bullpen -- before he induced an inning-ending, night-saving double play.

Seattle, whose lineup Saturday had only one player with a batting average over .260 (Ichiro Suzuki at .322), inched to within one on a booming home run to left by newly acquired Justin Smoak -- the young first baseman who was the marquee name in the deal that sent Cliff Lee to Texas.

"It was a terrible pitch," Saunders said. "I tried to throw one down in the strike zone and threw one right down the middle. He hurt me."

Sometimes pitchers get leads -- like Saunders did Saturday -- and they begin to pitch to contact in fear of walking batters. Scioscia said he didn't think that was the case.

"I think he had a problem with his command, no doubt about it," said Scioscia, who notched his 950th career win as a manager.

Saunders gave way to reliever Kevin Jepsen in the seventh after giving up 10 hits and five runs in 86 pitches. Mariners catcher Josh Bard immediately greeted Jepsen with a towering home run to right field that tied the score.

High, deep and Juan

Juan Rivera sent the 42,977 in attendance home happy with a go-ahead, two-out homer in the bottom of the seventh inning. If you remember, he missed six straight games in the previous home stand because of vision problems. But Rivera jumped all over Brian Sweeney's 1-and-0 pitch, pulling it to left-center field for his 11th home run.

It's safe to say Rivera saw that one -- he stood and admired the ball as it sailed toward the outfield and the customary fireworks began to go off near the rock pile.

"We hope Juan keeps moving forward," Scioscia said. "He's definitely swinging the bat better since we came out of the break. He's very important to us. Hopefully he can stay on this course because he usually picks it up in the second half."

Rivera is 6 for 13 since the All-Star break.

Quote of the day

"I have a huge hole to fill when Torii [Hunter] is not in there. I try to be at my best defensively because I believe he's the best center fielder in the game." -- Reggie Willits, who made the start in center field in place of Hunter.

Looking ahead

The Angels seek the four-game sweep and eighth consecutive win against Seattle on Sunday.

Starting pitcher Ervin Santana (8-7, 3.76 ERA) has been the victim of some tough luck recently. The right-hander has lost his last two starts despite going at least eight innings in each. On July 8 in Chicago, Santana tossed eight innings of one-run, three-hit ball, but John Danks countered with a complete game two-hitter to lead the White Sox to a 1-0 win. He went 8.1 innings in a 4-2 home loss to the Kansas City Royals five days before. Santana is 1-1 with an ERA of 4.26 against Seattle this season.

The Mariners will counter with left-hander Jason Vargas (6-4, 3.09 ERA), who played his college ball at nearby Long Beach State. He pitched well in his final start before the All-Star break, holding the New York Yankees to a run in seven innings. Vargas is 1-0 in two starts against the Angels this year (three earned runs in 13.1 innings).