The rookie pitched effectively into the eighth inning, and Garret Anderson and Mike Napoli homered Friday night in a 4-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays that extended the Angels' winning streak to six games.
"It'll mature you pretty quick, knowing that every game is critical," Saunders said after his 11th major league start. "It puts a lot of pressure on you, but it's also a lot of fun."
The two-time defending AL West champs, who were a season-worst 11 games under .500 on May 22, are now a season-high 11 over at 76-65. It's the biggest reversal during one season in franchise history, but the Angels still trail division-leading Oakland by 5½ games with seven meetings left during the final 10 days of the season.
"Our focus isn't on anything except winning every night," manager Mike Scioscia said. "We've got a challenge in front of us, and the only way to get there is to pour everything you have into every game. You have to look at the way you're going to get to a goal, not the goal itself. And it's got to continue in these last 20-something games."
Saunders (5-2) won for the first time in five outings after winning his first four starts this season. The left-hander, who has helped the Angels stay in contention despite a season-ending shoulder injury to 2005 Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon, allowed one run and five hits in 7 2/3 innings.
"They were hitting me pretty good in the first couple of innings," Saunders said. "So I kept the ball down later on using my two-seamer and changeup and used a couple of curveballs. But the best pitch in baseball is strike one."
Rodriguez, who had 45 saves last year, became the second closer in Angels history with 40 or more in two seasons -- joining predecessor Troy Percival. Rodriguez needs one more save to become the third pitcher with 100 or more total saves for the franchise. Percival had 316 and Bryan Harvey 126.
"Percy understood not only the physical demands of being a closer, but also the mental makeup. And he certainly saw that in Frankie, maybe before all of us did when Frankie came up in 2002 and he was in the bullpen with him," Scioscia said.
"This organization's had a long line of terrific closers like Bryan Harvey, Lee Smith and Percy. He saw Frankie's makeup and knew that torch was going to be passed at some point. Frankie's proud, and he wants to keep that torch going."
Facing an offense that came in batting a major league-leading .292 against left-handers, Saunders blanked the Blue Jays after giving up an RBI single by Vernon Wells in the first. He allowed only one hit after Aaron Hill singled with two outs in the third.
"We definitely have a pretty strong lineup against left-handed pitching, and I think that's just another compliment to the way he threw tonight," said Reed Johnson, who opened the game with a double and scored Toronto's run.
"He kept the ball down and out of the middle of the plate. A lot of his changeups were knee-high strikes or just below. He was living on the edge of the strike zone all the time. His kept his pitch count down and was jumping ahead with first-pitch strikes. So it didn't really make sense for us to sit back and just take pitches."
A.J. Burnett (7-7) gave up three runs and seven hits in seven innings, dropping his career record to 56-57. The right-hander, who was 5-1 in his previous six starts, struck out six and walked two in his first career appearance against the Angels.
Anderson had an RBI double in the fourth and scored the go-ahead run moments later on a double-play grounder by Howie Kendrick. Napoli made it 3-1 in the seventh with his 14th homer and second in his last 36 games. It was only the second allowed by Burnett in his past eight starts.
Anderson capped the scoring in the eighth with his 16th homer, off reliever Jason Frasor.
- Burnett is 48-47 in 126 starts since his no-hitter on May 12, 2001, at San Diego. He walked a career-high nine batters in that game.
- Blue Jays RHP Justin Speier, sidelined since Aug. 4 because of a forearm strain, threw 17 pitches in his second simulated game this week and reported no discomfort. He should be available on Sunday.
- Toronto manager John Gibbons has changed pitchers a major league-leading 418 times.