Michael Saunders makes it fun to watch Mariners again

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comMay 13, 2013 

As the Seattle Mariners approach the quarter mark of the 2013 season, we can deduce this much about their everyday lineup: It’s better, and way more fun to watch, when Michael Saunders is batting leadoff.

Saunders had only a supporting role Sunday in the Mariners’ 6-1 victory over the Oakland Athletics at Safeco Field. The center fielder wasn’t even the most influential Seattle player named Saunders. (That distinction belonged to starter Joe Saunders, who sustained his pattern of pitching like an ace at home.)

But Michael Saunders showed the value of his versatility. Facing fellow left-hander Tommy Milone in the bottom of the first, Saunders went with the pitch and hit a line drive to left center.

“He put a nice swing on that,” said manager Eric Wedge. “He didn’t try to do too much.”

After Kyle Seager walked with one out, Kendrys Morales launched a three-run homer over the wall in left field. Though the Mariners had all the runs they’d need, Michael Saunders wasn’t finished.

Leading off the fifth inning, he put a bunt in play. It wasn’t a very good bunt — he popped the ball up — but with his speed, it didn’t have to be. Saunders beat out the bunt for an infield single, then advanced from first to third on a Jason Bay grounder that took a bad hop on the third baseman. Saunders scored a moment later on Seager’s sacrifice fly to right.

Manufacturing runs off bunts and sacrifice flies is difficult for the Mariners, who have a glut of first base-designated hitter types tending to clog the basepaths — when they’re actually, like, on the basepaths. Put another way: No other player in the lineup Sunday would have considered advancing from first to third on what amounted to an infield single.

At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Saunders has the ability to win games with his power, to save games with his defense, and to change games with his speed. The shoulder injury he suffered while making a wall-banging catch on April 9 can’t be overemphasized.

The Mariners were 11/2 games out of first place, with a 4-4 record, when Saunders was put on the disabled list. During his absence, they fell to 8 games out of first, while their record dropped to 11-16.

Since Saunders’ return on April 28, they are 7-4. It took the Mariners almost a full month to win their first series, but after beating Oakland twice over the weekend, they’ve now won three of their past four series — and split the other.

When Saunders was told Sunday about how his influence on the team can be backed up with numbers, the former hockey player deflected the praise like a goalie fending off a slap shot.

“All I know is that I was happy to come off the disabled list,” he said. “It was tough just watching while the guys played.”

The injury derailed momentum Saunders had built in spring training, when the 26-year old resembled a one-man wrecking crew for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic. Saunders went 8-for-11 in the tournament with seven RBI, three doubles and a home run.

“He’s a very talented man that probably doesn’t get the recognition he deserves,” Canada manager Ernie Whitt said of his team’s MVP. “Playing in Seattle, they just don’t have the media coverage. But he’s just a tremendous up-and-coming outfielder who’s going to be a superstar.”

Last year was a breakout season for Saunders, who finished with 31 doubles, 19 home runs, 57 RBI and 21 stolen bases — all career highs. But his more compact swing, retooled the previous winter with the assistance of personal hitting coach Mike Bard, still found him striking out too often (132 times in 139 games) and working the count too infrequently (43 walks).

He’s improved in that area, too, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 17-10.

“I think he’s just settled in,” said Wedge. “He’s gained experience the last couple years — in particular last year.”

Despite evidence to the contrary, Saunders doesn’t see himself as any kind of catalyst.

“We’ve got great hitters in the middle of this lineup,” he said. “I try to get on base for them, but they do the hard work.”

So did fans who followed the Mariners while Saunders was hurt. It was hard watching a lineup that offered little else but the potential to hit a long ball now and then. An offense built around the occasional bases-empty homer induces yawns and creates apathy.

But an offense built behind a leadoff man who can reach first on a flubbed bunt, and advance to third in the time it takes to snap your fingers? A leadoff man with more power than Ichiro Suzuki? That’s fun. That’s exciting.

“He has a good heartbeat up there,” said Wedge.

A good heartbeat? I’m not sure what the manager meant, and yet I understood. Michael Saunders has a heartbeat that’s so good, it’s providing the rest of his team with a pulse.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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