Behind Saunders' seven solid innings, airtight relief, quality defense and an offense that came alive in every facet, the Angels dispatched the Twins, 7-2. This averted a weekend sweep and extended their American League West Division lead to two games over Seattle, beaten in Toronto.
Garret Anderson launched a third-inning homer that removed an albatross from the club, ending a 14-game long ball drought. But that was just one of a number of encouraging developments in the eyes of manager Mike Scioscia.
"What Joe did was the most important thing," Scioscia said, having watched Justin Speier and Dustin Moseley finish the job with a scoreless inning apiece.
It has been an unsettling season for Saunders, moving back and forth from Anaheim to Triple-A Salt Lake, one foot in the Majors, the other in a place he didn't want to be. But he took a large stride on this occasion in nailing down a spot in the rotation -- now and perhaps for years to come.
"We'd like Joe in the rotation long-term," Scioscia said. "Whether it was a good start or a bad start, we expect him to be part of our rotation in the future."
The future is now, it appears.
With Ervin Santana in Salt Lake trying to rediscover his winning formula, Saunders accepted the challenge and silenced a Twins lineup that can be hard to handle. He's 4-0 in six starts with a 2.89 ERA, this being his longest effort, surpassed only by his six-inning blanking of Seattle on April 20 in Anaheim.
"Joe's been like that every start," Scioscia said. "He doesn't let anything take him out of his game."
Catcher Mike Napoli sensed Saunders was in control from the outset when he worked a perfect first inning.
"You've got to get him in a good rhythm," Napoli said. "He had some zip on his fastball, and he was mixing his changeup and curveball. His changeup was awesome, I thought. Any time a pitcher has everything going like that, it's going to keep hitters off balance. They can't look for one pitch."
Saunders had the authoritative look of a craftsman in full command of his tools.
"He had good tempo and composure," Anderson said. "He's matured the last couple years. He looks like a guy who sees an opportunity and is going to go after it. Not knocking Santana, but when you get your shot, you've got to take advantage of it. He went after it.
"That's a good lineup over there. They don't strike out a lot and put the ball in play, so it's pretty tough."
Three through five -- Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter -- the Twins are about as dangerous as any club in the league. They were a combined 2-for-9 against Saunders, with Mauer grounding into a rally-killing double play in the third and looking at a third strike in the sixth with a runner in scoring position before Morneau's RBI single made it 5-2.
The double play was started by Maicer Izturis, doing a solid job replacing Howie Kendrick as the second baseman's broken left index finger heals.
Izturis' walk forced home a first-inning run after Casey Kotchman had coaxed a walk from Matt Garza to load the bases after falling behind 1-2. Singles by Orlando Cabrera and Anderson had gotten things started, and all that prevented a big inning was poor location by Napoli on a bullet that third baseman Luis Rodriguez speared to leave the bases loaded.
The blazing speed of Nathan Haynes, getting a start in center with Gary Matthews Jr. resting, created a run in the second, forcing a two-base throwing error by shortstop Jason Bartlett on a rushed throw. Chone Figgins' single delivered his buddy.
Anderson went down to get a Garza slider in the third inning and lifted the ball an estimated 398 feet to right field -- the Angels' first homer since Napoli and Kotchman went deep in Baltimore on July 1.
Anderson, raising his average to .301 with a run of multihit games, didn't see any more significance in this run than any of the others.
"I'm not right where I want to be," he said, "but I'm starting to put together some solid swings, and I'm being able to recognize pitches better."
He recognized the slider as the fifth offspeed delivery of that at-bat by Garza, who hadn't given up an earned run in 15 innings coming into the game but fell to 1-2 nonetheless.
The Angels added a run in the sixth when Robb Quinlan -- delighted to get a start in front of his Minnesota homefolk -- walked to force home a run behind singles by Kotchman and Izturis. Kotchman's sacrifice fly produced another run in the seventh, Figgins and Cabrera getting it started with singles. Successive doubles by Napoli and Quinlan for a run in the eighth, and Vlad Guerrero and Kotchman for a ninth-inning run kept the Dome quiet.
"That's the way we play the game," Figgins said. "We used all of our skills in this game and got some very good pitching. This was more like us."
They headed home to open a three-game series with Oakland on Monday night clearly feeling a lot better about themselves.