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Angels' Sparks On Fire

Steve Sparks took almost two years between major league victories, and the Anaheim Angels knuckleballer doesn't want to wait that long again.

Sparks allowed four runs and six hits in 6 2-3 innings in his first big league appearance since the end of the 1996 season, and Phil Nevin hit a two-run homer as the Angels beat the Texas Rangers 8-5 Monday night.

"It's been a long while," said Sparks, who missed all of the 1997 season following surgery on his pitching elbow and was making his Angels debut on Monday night. "I was uncertain about how I'd respond, but I was unusually relaxed. It was a great feeling."

Sparks (1-0) notched his first major league victory since July 1, 1996, when he played for the Milwaukee Brewers. Sparks, who struck out five and walked one, had made 11 minor league appearances this season before joining the Angels.

Sparks used 70 percent knuckleballs and 30 percent fastballs against a Rangers lineup that began the night with a team batting average of .298. He was helped by the fact that there was relatively little breeze at The Ballpark in Arlington, where the wind often hits 30 mph.

"Being a knuckleball pitcher, you don't have to worry about velocity," Sparks said. "I'm not out there to blow it by hitters. It's a feel pitch and that helps when you've been away as long as I have. And no wind out there is great for a knuckleballer."

The free-swinging Rangers had trouble timing Sparks all night.

"Our offense didn't solve Mr. Sparks," Rangers manager Johnny Oates said. "He kept us out in front of everything. The balls we did hit, we hit on the ground at people. We never really got our offense going."

Garret Anderson, Tim Salmon and Craig Shipley hit solo homers, and Gary DiSarcina went 3-for-3 as the Angels narrowed the Rangers' lead to a half-game in the AL West. Anaheim won three of four games in the series.

"I'm very satisfied," said Angels bench coach Joe Maddon, who's running the team while manager Terry Collins sits out an eight-game suspension. "Starting the series, you'd be satisfied with a split, but we won the first two and then you want more. It would have been most disappointing not getting the third."

Troy Percival got the final four outs for his league-leading 20th save.

Juan Gonzalez got his major league-leading 81st RBI with a sacrifice fly in the Texas first.

Anaheim came back with a three-run second against Bobby Witt (5-4) on Nevin's two-run homer and DiSarcina's RBI double to take a 3-1 lead.

In the third, Salmon's sacrifice fly and Anderson's homer stretched the Angels' lead to 5-1. Witt left with runners on first and third and one out in the fourth, and Darin Erstad's sacrifice fly off reliever Tim Crabtree made it 6-1.

Witt allowed six runs and eight hits over 3 1-3 innings, marking the fourth time he has lasted less than four innings in 14 starts this season.

Lee Stevens' homer in the fifth cut Anaheim's lead to 6-2, but Salmon's homer in the top of the seventh made it 7-2.

Fernando Tatis' run-scoring double and RBI singles from Roberto Kelly and Rusty Greer in the bottom of the inning made it 7-5.

The Angels scored their final run in the ninth on Shipley's first home run of the season.

Notes: The Angels are 11-5 against Texas since the start of the 1997 season. ... The Rangers called up left-hander Matt Perisho from their Triple-A Oklahoma for Tuesday's start against Oakland. Perisho, acquired from Anaheim in an offseason trade, was 7-5 for Oklahoma. He replaces Darren Oliver, who is on the disabled list with a strained muscle in his left shoulder. Perisho will be the sixth pitcher to start a game for Texas this season. ... The Angels have won four of their last five. They trailed the Rangers by six games on May 24. ... Salmon has nine homers at The Ballpark in Arlington, tying him with Ken Griffey Jr. and Jose Canseco for the most by any Rangers' opponent.

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