ANAHEIM -- Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana came to Spring Training anticipating a duel in the Arizona sun for the fifth spot in the Angels' rotation.

Four months later, they woke up on a Sunday morning to find they'd been selected as teammates on the 2008 American League All-Star team, bound for New York's Yankee Stadium and the July 15 Midsummer Classic. Joining them would be closer Francisco Rodriguez, who would be able to prepare them for the experience.


Injuries this spring to John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar, co-aces and twin anchors of the 2007 rotation, cleared space for both Saunders and Santana to flourish -- and that's exactly what they've done as two-fifths of a superb rotation.

It began to come together in November, even if few understood at the time. While his acquisition of durable Jon Garland at the expense of shortstop Orlando Cabrera raised eyebrows, Tony Reagins' first big move as general manager has come sharply into focus as a major plus for the reigning AL West champions.

With Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis excelling at shortstop, Garland has enhanced the Angels' chances not only of repeating as division titlists, but also of advancing deeper into October than the three games they lasted last season.

Garland, twice an 18-game winner in Chicago, has met and exceeded expectations, delivering solid innings every fifth day. Finding his rhythm in May, he has excelled. While Jered Weaver hasn't been as steady as he'd hoped, the slender right-hander has held up his end of the rotation -- with the promise of better things to come.

Tying it all together, making this a unit perhaps without equal in the Majors, is Lackey. His season delayed six weeks by a triceps strain, the ace is back, dealing premium stuff and handling lead-dog status with bark on his fastball and bite on his curveball.

"This is the deepest rotation we've had since I've been here," manager Mike Scioscia said after Lackey, making his return on May 14, began putting up zeros. "We're sending a guy out there every day who can get us deep in games and give us a chance to win."

Only the AL West rival A's have a better ERA from their starting pitchers, and only the Blue Jays' starters have produced more innings. The Angels' big five leads the Majors in wins and their eight shutouts are one shy of the total delivered by the 2007 starting staff.

With Escobar's right shoulder still a concern, the Angels will need their starters to maintain their high-quality work to the finish line. They see no reason why that can't and won't be done.

Garland, a World Series champion in 2005 with the White Sox, sees this unit as comparable to the starters who took the ball from manager Ozzie Guillen during that memorable run. Mark Buehrle (16-8), Garland (18-10), Freddy Garcia (14-8), Jose Contreras (15-7) and Orlando Hernandez (9-9) formed a dynamic group, all but El Duque going at least 200 innings.

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"It's hard to compare -- we're each different in our own way," Garland said. "There are some fabulous arms on this team.

"Saunders and Santana pretty much paved the way. They've definitely taken it to the next level. Lackey and Weaver have shown what they can do. That confidence is there that we're going to give our team a chance to win darn near every night.

"In '05, it seemed like we were making each other better every game. You want to hold up your end. You get used to seeing it done day in and day out, and you want to keep it going. You want to continue bringing your best to the table."

Lackey clearly is the main man with the Angels. In Chicago, the four main guys were on fairly equal footing.

"At different points in the season, all of us took the lead," Garland said. "I started the season really hot. In the middle, Buehrle stepped up, and towards the end, it was Contreras. At different times, different guys took that lead role and ran with it.

"When you can go deep in games, it's going to keep your bullpen fresh. The history of the game is going to show you how important that is, having a fresh bullpen at the end of the season."

Lackey, who claimed Game 7 of the 2002 World Series as an Angels rookie, and Garland have started and won World Series games. Saunders, Santana and Weaver would love to know what that feels like.