SEATTLE - Fans on Sunday got a sneak preview of late September at Safeco Field.
As the Indians built a 6-0 lead on a Mariners team constitutionally incapable of recovering from six-run deficits, the drab and eerily quiet mood in the park suggested a season that began only 10 days ago has already run its course.
Are you ready for some football?
I am tempted to join the let’s-forget-about-this-hopeless-season ranks, but with 153 games remaining, I can’t go there yet. It’s too early to unload whatever veterans are capable of bringing back a low-level prospect or two, too early to turn 2011 over to the kids promising better baseball in 2012 and 2013.
Which brings us to Michael Saunders. At 24, the outfielder has gotten all the Triple-A experience he needs. He should be playing every day with the Mariners, and not because the season is lost. To the contrary, Saunders should be playing every day because this season, threatening to turn rancid before the tree buds grow into leaves, is salvageable.
Saunders started in left field Sunday as a replacement for Milton Bradley, whose ailing knees demand he rest at least once a week.
“I want to make sure we take care of him,” manager Eric Wedge said of Bradley, a few hours before a 6-4 defeat to Cleveland extended the Mariners’ losing streak to seven. “I kind of felt that way about him and a few other guys. I want to make sure we give them periodic days off. Sunday’s a good day because you’re playing Saturday night and don’t come back again to play until Monday night.”
At the risk of sounding indifferent about Bradley’s health, I like the idea of Saunders playing because he gives a sputtering offense some spark. Saunders on Sunday reached base on a fifth-inning walk, then added a solo home run during a too-little, too-late rally in the seventh.
The homer gave Saunders a team-leading fifth RBI, produced in only five games. If Saunders drives in a run in his next game – whenever that is – he’ll break a Mariners record he shares with John Olerud: five RBI in his first five games.
During spring training, Saunders was that rare position player who put meaningless Cactus League games to use.
Struggling to the point he appeared bound for Tacoma, Saunders experimented with a batting stance that brought stability to his hands and life to his swing.
Although he finished the spring with a .180 batting average, Saunders left camp confident he could follow up his decent if unspectacular rookie season with a breakout year.
“It all started in spring training, when we got to try out this new stance,” Saunders said Sunday. “It has helped me get my hands into a consistent place, allows me to stay back, and allows the ball to travel to me instead of me jumping out toward it.”
Beyond its technical benefits, Saunders’ retooled approach has allowed him to achieve a mental comfort zone at the plate. Believing in the effectiveness of a new stance is as important as the stance itself.
Saunders’ challenge now is to find a permanent place on Wedge’s lineup card. With Ryan Langerhans starting to resemble the guy who raked in Arizona – he hit his second home run of the season Sunday – the outfield has gotten crowded, and will get even more crowded when starting center fielder Franklin Gutierrez returns from the disabled list.
“I just tell myself that when I get the opportunity, as cliché as it sounds, to put together good at-bats,” said Saunders. “Do I want to be in the lineup? Absolutely. Do we have other outfielders who deserve to be in the lineup? Absolutely.”
If there’s an odd man out here, it would appear to be Bradley.
The three-year, $30 million contract he brought from the Cubs in the Carlos Silva deal expires at the end of the season, and the chances of Bradley returning to Seattle in 2011 rank between minuscule and nonexistent.
The $10 million the Mariners owe Bradley – a vestige of the $48 million they once owed Silva – is gone. With so many other issues facing the Mariners 11 days into April (defensive lapses, ineffective situational hitting, the Jack Wilson fiasco, Chone Figgins’ slump, a bullpen with inconsistent middle men), what’s the sense in justifying a sunk cost at the expense of Saunders’ development?
Saunders can run. He’s got some power. His baseball makeup is solid – he’s happy to play, content to sit – and on a team that’s giving up way too many outs in the field, his defense is too valuable to be wasted on the dugout bench.
The small Sunday crowd (announced at 21,128, it was more like an audience) had barely settled in when Saunders put his glove on display, robbing the Tribe’s Michael Brantley of a leadoff hit in the top of the first.
Familiar with the tendency of the left-handed-hitting Brantley to go to the opposite field from their days as minor leaguers, and considering the fact left-hander Erik Bedard was on the mound, Saunders positioned himself a few feet closer to the left-field line. After that, Saunders’ sheer athleticism took over. A ball that probably drops 10 feet in front of Bradley was caught on a dive for the first out.
Looking on from the railing of the Mariners dugout, Wedge had to be impressed. Whether the skipper was impressed enough to consider Saunders an everyday left fielder remains the question.
“You want to try to keep getting him there,” said Wedge. “It was a good day for Michael. He’s been working really hard with his swing and his new approach and mindset of all that, as well. It was nice to see him punch one. Obviously, he’s very athletic in the outfield.”
It’s obvious to me, too.
The baseball season might feel like September, but we’ve only just begun. There’s still hope. If hope vanishes while the last year of Milton Bradley’s contract is thought to be more relevant than Michael Saunders’ potential, it will be a shame.