"Obviously, my confidence level was nothing," he added. "My last two starts have been [rubbish]. I needed this to get back on track ... for the final stretch in September."
The win was forged in equal parts by the wheels of Chone Figgins and the bats of Torii Hunter and Vladimir Guerrero. Mark Teixeira drove home the winning run with a sacrifice fly after Figgins walked leading off the ninth against Fernando Rodney, stole his third base of the night and advanced to third on Garret Anderson's infield out.
"That's how you play the game," said Hunter, who drove in the first three Angels runs en route to a three-hit night matched by Guerrero. "It's very important to get the job done. G.A. got him over, and the big guy got a fly ball on an 0-2 count against a guy [Rodney] who throws 96, 97 [mph]."
The steal was No. 30 of the season for Figgins, who became the fourth player in the Majors to reach that standard over the past five seasons. Ichiro Suzuki, Jimmy Rollins and Juan Pierre, Figgins' long-ago teammate in the Rockies' farm system, are the others.
"That's a relief," Figgins said, beaming, when informed of the milestone theft. "We manufactured a run there, that's the big thing."
No mention of relief is complete without a nod toward K-Rod, who worked out of a two-on jam by retiring the dangerous Placido Polanco on a grounder to Figgins at third for the final out.
"Not only a great season -- a great career," manager Mike Scioscia said when asked about his closer's rousing quest for Bobby Thigpen's single-season saves record of 57.
K-Rod is knocking off barriers with such regularity, No. 200 sneaked up on everyone. He also was the youngest to get to 100.
It was Jose Arredondo on in relief of Saunders in the seventh with a runner on second and one out. Arredondo blew a fastball past Matt Joyce and retired Curtis Granderson on a grounder.
Shields got the first two outs in the eighth before Cabrera went the other way for his 31st homer of the season. If it bothered Saunders to watch No. 15 get away, he certainly didn't show it in the afterglow.
"It's a matter of trusting your stuff," he said. "I needed to go out there and throw up a quality start and give us a chance to win. And we won."
After getting only four outs while yielding six runs in his previous outing, against the A's, which came on the heels of surrendering six runs in 5 1/3 innings against the Twins, Saunders went back to the drawing board with pitching coach Mike Butcher.
"I was closing off my front side," Saunders said. "I was flying open. That was making my fastball cut a little bit. Tonight I was staying through the baseball rather than placing it -- just trusting my stuff. It's kind of weird when you're out there. You know what you're doing [wrong], but it's tough to fix when you're out there."
So, as he put it, "you got back to square one -- basic stuff you've been doing since Little League."
That meant recalling the early lessons of the senior Joe Saunders, the father who taught his son how to throw a baseball all those years ago in the fields of Virginia.
"Sometimes," the son said, "you need to refresh your mechanics -- and that's what I did."
In doing so, he refreshed his mind and his entire nervous system, or so it seemed.
"In my opinion," Scioscia said, "he got more aggressive. Maybe he was trying to get too much feel. He's got a good arm, but you can't wish it there. You've got to drive it there. He got in a more aggressive mode tonight and really pitched well. That's a good, deep offense."
After Hunter's two-run double gave him a lead against Chris Lambert, Saunders gave one run back when Cabrera shattered his bat on a two-out RBI single that found center field.
"Fastball in, a good pitch, and he hits your pitch," Saunders said. "You've got to block out the demons -- 'OK, here we go again.' I made a great pitch. Keep making great pitches, and eventually it's going to go your way."
Sensational plays by shortstop Brandon Wood, who backhanded Edgar Renteria's bullet to start a double play, and second baseman Sean Rodriguez, who ranged deep into foul territory to stab a pop foul, helped Saunders through the second inning.
Guerrero's double and Hunter's single added a run in the third, but the Tigers drew even when Saunders hit Polanco with a pitch and Magglio Ordonez and Cabrera followed with RBI doubles.
"After the third inning," Scioscia said, "that's when Joe really got aggressive. That was good to see."
There was more to come, from Figgins, Anderson, Teixeira and K-Rod in the ninth, sealing the deal. The win went to Shields (6-4) in the most satisfying no-decision Saunders has experienced in a long time -- if not ever.