Sure bet seems to be that Saunders can’t get going on road

May 6, 2013 

Betting on baseball is a sure way to lose money.

A big-league advance scout once told me about two colleagues who tired of the travel and quit. With their knowledge and insiders’ wisdom, they hatched a plan to move to Las Vegas for a season and make a killing in the sports books.

The poor, unfortunate souls ran out of money before the All-Star break.

I recalled that story Sunday morning when I picked up the paper and noticed the Blue Jays were -145 favorites on the money line to beat the Mariners (+135) at Toronto. (In other words, a gambler betting on the Jays would have needed to invest $145 to win $100. A gambler betting on the Mariners would have put down $100 to win $135.)

What did the oddsmakers like about the Blue Jays, other than the fact they were home? The Jays had been outscored 12-1 over the first two games of the series, sustaining an early-season swoon that could cost manager John Gibbons his job. The Mariners, who had won six of their previous eight, were trending in a different direction.

Ah, but the oddsmakers foresaw the starting pitching matchup. More specifically, they foresaw Mariners left-hander Joe Saunders pitching on the road.

Saunders, acquired as the 2013 version of Kevin Millwood — a serviceable veteran who’ll take the ball every five days without any pretenses of wowing anybody — has been reliably inconsistent. He looks like an All-Star-caliber ace at Safeco Field, and somebody throwing wheelhouse-bound batting practice pitches away from it.

Saunders’ home-road splits this season are remarkable in their contrast.

Home: 2-0, 0.81 ERA, .173 opponents batting average.

Road: 0-4, 12.54 ERA, .424 opponents batting average.

No wonder the Mariners showed up at Rogers Centre looking like the split-squad guys assigned to make a bus trip to Tucson for a Cactus League game in late March. Saunders was starting on the road.

They were toast, and they knew it.

Afterward, manager Eric Wedge was asked about Saunders’ Jekyll-and-Hyde pattern.

“I just think it’s somewhat of a fluke thing right now,” Wedge said. “It’s got a little bit of momentum, and we’ve got to stop it.”

Uh, Skip, this home-road disparity is not a fluke.

And whatever momentum it has gained is not a little bit. The momentum is similar to a freight train carrying a mile’s worth of full ore jennies.

But about this, I agree: You’ve got to stop it.

How?

A sports psychologist might help. Safeco Field, despite its recent fence adjustments, remains a park favorable to pitchers.

But it isn’t so favorable that a journeyman left-hander can expect to compete there with lights-out consistency.

Yet he has. Even in the Mariners’ 3-1 loss to the Rangers on April 13 in Seattle, Saunders pitched a near gem.

He worked seven innings, allowing three hits and one unearned run.

Saunders hasn’t made it beyond the fifth inning in any of his four road starts.

Is there a doctor in the house? Is somebody capable of convincing “Safeco Joe” that the distance between the pitching rubber and the back of home plate – 60 feet, 6 inches – doesn’t vary from town to town?

Another idea would be to buck the conventional thinking of a standard rotation and use Saunders as a sort of spot starter: Start him at home, but limit his role on the road to mop-up duty in blowouts.

Concerned about rust accumulated on a 10-day trip? There are these places called bullpens, where pitchers can keep their arms fresh.

Wedge is proud to be considered an old-school manager with old-school values. He takes the long view of a season — it’s a marathon, not a sprint — and he’s wary of radical-healing alternatives.

So the chances of converting Saunders into a home-park starter and road-park spectator are, well, about as slim as the chances of Saunders pitching beyond the fifth inning May 19, when he’s slotted to face the Indians in Cleveland.

I am not planning to be in Las Vegas on May 19, but the more I think about Saunders pitching on the road, the more I’m tempted to catch a cheap flight and make the first baseball wager of my life.

Then again, Saunders figures to start at home Sunday against Oakland, and I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t handcuff the A’s.

The pitcher is a master at home, a mess on the road. I hope the sheer numbers of that dichotomy don’t turn me into the gambler I’m ill-equipped to be.

If two advance scouts couldn’t win betting baseball in Las Vegas, who can?

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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