Saunders dominant in win vs. Twins

Saunders dominant in win vs. Twins

MINNEAPOLIS -- Three games, four runs allowed. The early returns on the Angels' reshuffled pitching staff are as bright as Torii Hunter's smile and profile.

On Wednesday night at the Metrodome, it was Joe Saunders' turn to dazzle. The 26-year-old southpaw, bidding to claim a permanent spot in the rotation, silenced the Twins for eight innings and watched Francisco Rodriguez nail down the final three outs in a 1-0 decision over the Twins.

"I'm happy as [can be] right now," Saunders said. "That's what we want to do -- pitch great for our team early on. With our horses out down, we've got to put in a foundation of good starts and get some wins. They matter just as much now as in September."

With John Lackey, Kelvim Escobar, Scot Shields and Chris Bootcheck all occupying space on the disabled list, manager Mike Scioscia has found elixirs all around him.

The only run Saunders and K-Rod needed was manufactured in the seventh inning by Howard Kendrick. He legged out an infield hit, advanced on a bunt and an infield out and scored when Nick Blackburn bounced a wild pitch to Chone Figgins past catcher Mike Redmond.

In his Major League debut as a starter, Blackburn was close to mistake-free, but that one misstep was enough to beat him.

On the heels of a solid effort by Jered Weaver in the opener and a brilliant one by Jon Garland, Saunders needed only 80 pitches to subdue the Twins on four hits and one walk, striking out four hitters.

Did he want to go the distance? Of course.

"I really wanted to finish that game, more than any I've had," Saunders said. "I haven't had a great game like that in a long time. Of course, I wanted to finish.

"I've never thrown a shutout or a complete game in the Major Leagues. Every time a pitcher goes out there, he wants to throw a complete game. But we've got one of the best closers in baseball in Frankie, and he got the job done."

Applauding Saunders' command and economy, Scioscia used the same reasoning he'd applied one night earlier to Garland, who yielded one run on six hits in eight innings. There's no need to push it this early in the season, especially with a rested bullpen.

"His pitch count wasn't that high," Scioscia said of Saunders, "but it was good to give them a different look. Coming off Spring Training, with Joe getting up and down in the dugout eight times, I thought eight was enough."

Three double plays started by Kendrick at second and turned by the electric Erick Aybar in his first start at shortstop assisted Saunders.

Kendrick and Aybar collaborated one last time at the expense of Joe Mauer after K-Rod had walked the leadoff hitter in the ninth, turning a game-ending double play.

"They were awesome, all those guys in our infield," Saunders said, "As long as Howie gets to a ball, it's pretty much automatic. Aybar's got an absolute hose."

Saunders' final out in the eighth came courtesy on both ends, by Figgins back-handing a shot at third and then by Casey Kotchman, digging out the throw at first.

The most impressive of the four double plays had preceded it. With Craig Monroe running on the pitch, Redmond slapped a grounder that Kendrick shoveled quickly to second. Aybar's feet hardly seemed to hit the ground as he glided over the bag, elevated and delivered a strike to Kotchman.

Jeff Mathis, who guided Saunders through his gem, thought it was as good as any he's seen the man from Virginia who is now 16-8 in 34 career starts in the Major Leagues.

"He had all his pitches for strikes and was keeping the ball down," Mathis said. "That's one of the best [efforts] I've seen him, with everything in the zone. He was throwing that breaking ball and changeup early in counts for strikes."

Saunders retired the first eight men he faced and then picked off Matt Tolbert, after the shortstop collected his first Major League hit in the third. The Twins didn't get a man in scoring position until the sixth.

Blackburn, whose fastball topped out in the mid-90s, had a string of 11 consecutive outs when Hunter finally ended his hitless drought at 10 at-bats. A single through the middle with two outs in the sixth was Torii's first as an Angel.

"It felt like my first Major League hit," Hunter said, eyes alive as always. "Now I can go out and play and get rolling."

Hunter collected his second hit of the night in the eighth, right behind Gary Matthews Jr.'s second hit, but southpaw Dennys Reyes quelled the threat.

In his first appearance as a $10 million closer, K-Rod made the Kendrick run stand up when he got the best of the dangerous Mauer, the game ending with a familiar Kendrick-to-Aybar-to-Kotchman refrain.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.