Michael Saunders knows the feeling of pride that comes from representing your country on the baseball field.
It started for the British Columbia native at the age of 12 when he and his teammates from Victoria represented Canada at the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa.
“That was the first time I got to wear Canada’s name across my chest,” the Seattle Mariners outfielder said.
And it continued for him as he progressed as one of the top players in Canada. From ages 15 to 17 he played on the Canadian junior national team. Then in 2008, he played for Canada in the Beijing Olympics.
And yet, the humble gratification of putting on a Team Canada jersey never lessens for Saunders.
“It’s a great honor anytime you can put on your country’s jersey,” he said. “It’s a big sense of pride that gets involved.”
Come March, Saunders will experience that feeling again on a higher level as a member of the team picked to represent Canada at the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
“It’s officially the top players in the world representing their countries,” he said. “The competition is going to be second to none.”
The last time the WBC was played, in 2009, Saunders could only watch. He was recovering from offseason surgery on his right (throwing) shoulder and wasn’t cleared to play.
Even then, as a talented but unproven prospect for the Mariners, there was no guarantee he would have played much if he had been selected. But as he watched his fellow Canadians compete, he thought he would be there with them this year.
“I felt like if I stayed healthy and progressed, I’d have a good chance to be invited,” Saunders said.
He did both. He had a bit of a breakthrough last season, thanks to a revamped swing and approach that resulted in a .247 batting average with 19 homers and 57 RBI in 139 games.
The performance ensured that Saunders wasn’t going to be watching the WBC this year from home.
“First and foremost, I’m a Mariner first,” he said. “I checked with the front office, and the coaching staff was really supportive. As soon as they gave me the go-ahead, it was a no-brainer.”
Now Saunders will likely be starting in the outfield and hitting in a lineup featuring Twins first baseman Justin Morneau, Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie and catcher Russell Martin.
“To play with the likes of Morneau, I’m looking forward to learn from that,” Saunders said.
To prepare himself for the early exposure to top competition, Saunders adjusted his offseason workout schedule.
He’s working in Denver with swing coach Mike Bard (brother of former Mariners catcher Josh Bard), who helped rework his swing last offseason.
“Last year, the biggest thing for me was when I was going to see live pitching and if what I did was going to work out,” he said. “I saw a little success in spring training and it kind of boosted my confidence, knowing that the hard work that I put in last offseason was put in good use.”
This year the changes aren’t quite as drastic. He has the swing he wants. It’s just a matter of continuing to work on it.
“Last year was kind of a foundation for me. I feel like I revamped my swing and I was going to build off that this offseason,” he said. “It’s still a work in progress. But going forward, it’s a lot harder to fine tune certain things.”
Saunders also has the added rush of preparing to face live pitching in pressure-filled situations early. WBC pool play for Canada starts March 7.
“I hit indoors and typically hit off machines,” he said. “The machines are a little more advanced. You can set them to throw any kind of pitch you want. The biggest thing for me was upping pitch pressure as soon as possible.”
As he stood in the Safeco Field dugout at Mariners FanFest on Sunday, Saunders talked about the WBC and the coming season.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “I’m starting to get the itch. It’s going to be a very competitive camp. I feel like I’m ready to go and have a successful season.”Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish