Saunders threw eight shutout innings and Howie Kendrick came home on a wild pitch in the seventh to give the Angels a 1-0 victory over rookie Nick Blackburn and the Minnesota Twins on Wednesday night.
"There's a lot of players that have been in Joe's shoes," Los Angeles manager Mike Scioscia said. "It's one thing to come to the big leagues. It's another to leave your footprints here. Joe, he's been making some footprints."
Francisco Rodriguez got his first save with a hitless ninth, extending the team's streak of wins when leading after eight innings to 159 games -- the longest current run in the majors.
Blackburn allowed just five hits and one walk while striking out six. He acknowledged some frustration about the one that got away, but took some solace that he made a correctable mistake rather than "serving one up" to one of the Angels' sluggers.
"I felt great out there. I felt better than I had in a long time," Blackburn said. "I think it all just kind of soaked in or something. I don't know. I never really was nervous."
Saunders won some big games last season and has a career record of 16-8, but many of his 34 major league starts have been blemished by inconsistency. Helping hold the rotation together with John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar stuck on the disabled list, the left-handed Saunders sailed through his first 2008 appearance with only four hits and one walk allowed.
"It felt great, and I had a lot of fun," Saunders said. "Guys have to step up, you know? Myself included. That's what I tried to do tonight -- step up."
He struck out three and kept most of the balls that were hit bouncing, mirroring what Jon Garland did in the previous game. Over the last two nights, Minnesota has made 36 groundball outs.
"They're throwing strikes and getting guys out by getting ahead in the count," said Kendrick, who helped turn four double plays at second base. "They've been huge so far, and I know they'll have to be there for us all year."
The Angels didn't even get a ball out of the infield in that decisive inning against Blackburn, the Joe Mauer lookalike and top prospect who mastered his first major league start -- except for one costly pitch.
Kendrick reached on an infield single, took second on a sacrifice bunt and advanced again on a groundout. Blackburn threw a wicked curveball that dived in the dirt and spun sharply away from backup catcher Mike Redmond -- starting for Mauer to make it easier for him to play in Thursday's matinee.
Torii Hunter said he hoped a pitch from former teammate Juan Rincon that plunked him in the elbow the night before would get his bat going, and his wish was granted. Hunter went 2-for-4, the first two hits of his Los Angeles career.
Minnesota's Justin Morneau, the 2006 AL MVP who signed an $80 million, six-year contract this winter, is still bouncing balls off the carpet instead of driving them over the wall. After Michael Cuddyer started the seventh with a single, Morneau followed with a chopper to second that made an easy double play and fell to 0-for-10 this season.
"It'll turn around," Morneau said. "I have confidence. I've hit all my life, so that's what I believe I'll do."
Morneau made the play of the series, though, at first base when he dived to his left and stopped a chopper down the line hit by the ultra-fast Chone Figgins in the fifth. When the ball bounced out of his glove, Morneau sprung to his feet. He picked it up in foul territory and blindly tossed it backward in one motion to Blackburn -- who calmly covered the bag and got the out.
"It was pretty cool. I definitely wouldn't have tried it a couple of years ago," Morneau said.
The Twins had a chance against Rodriguez when Matt Tolbert led off with a walk, but Carlos Gomez tried to drag bunt three straight times -- and all of them went foul for an unconventional strikeout. Then Mauer pinch hit and bounced into a game-ending double play.
"We've got some guys, once they get swinging, they're going to score some runs," manager Ron Gardenhire assured.
Tolbert singled for his first major league hit, the first runner to reach against Saunders with two outs in the third inning. He was a late fill-in for SS Adam Everett, who left the stadium at the beginning of batting practice to tend to a family situation. ... Scioscia said setup man Scot Shields "felt very strong" and will pitch in a rehab assignment Friday for Triple-A Salt Lake.
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