By Larry LaRue The News Tribune
Michael Saunders isn’t delicate when explaining a career path with the Seattle Mariners that often seemed to be going nowhere.
“Some players make the team out of spring training their first year and never look back,” he said. “I’ve taken a wrong fork or two — and I’m still learning.”
At 25, the education of the Canadian-born outfielder seemed not to have produced the big-league player scouts still thought might exist. At 6-foot-4, Saunders had size, speed and the possibility of power.
At 25, he’d also done little with three partial seasons in the majors and with a .199 career batting average, ended last season with a once-promising future nearly behind him.
“I started from zero last winter,” Saunders said. “I was desperate. I was out of chances. I had to start over.”
So many things had to go right for Saunders to be a factor with the Mariners this season one hand couldn’t count them — and he knew that each day he spent rebuilding his swing, learning the basics of hitting.
Remarkably, Saunders not only came to camp a new player, he got the opportunity to play center field on opening day when Franklin Gutierrez was hurt in spring training.
Since then, 2012 has been a season of firsts for Saunders.
After more than 800 at-bats, he was hit by his first big-league pitch one day after a writer asked him why he’d never been hit.
In the outfield, Saunders was struck in the face by a fly ball, a moment teammates have not let him forget. Saunders was ejected from a game — another first — and was caught stealing to end a game his team trailed by two runs.
Given all that, it’s something of a surprise that Saunders has emerged as one of the more pleasant surprises of the Seattle season.
“Michael can play anywhere in the outfield, and he’s given us as many quality at-bats as anyone on the team,” manager Eric Wedge said. “Early on, he was pitched as tough as anybody, but he kept battling. He’s a left-handed hitter who hits lefties, he’s shown power, shown the ability to steal bases.
“And he really is just scratching the surface. He is going to get better and better.”
In a season where nearly every hitter on the roster has seen his batting average decline since 2011, Saunders is batting .247 with 16 home runs, 29 doubles, 50 RBI and a team-best 20 stolen bases in 24 attempts.
No, not eye-popping numbers but career highs in each category.
“The best thing is that we’re winning more games, playing better as a team,” Saunders said. “For me personally, the most exciting thing is that last winter I was started from nowhere.’
“Now, I’ve built a foundation. I’m learning not just how to hit but what to expect, how to handle situations, what to look for in certain counts. As far as I’ve come this year, there’s a long way to go to be the player I think I can be.”
Saunders has even been handed a cool nickname by fans — ‘The Condor.’
Last September, no one was calling him much of anything, not after he’d batted .148. Afraid his career was slipping away, Saunders talked to teammate Josh Bard, who mentioned that his brother, Mike, was working with some players.
Saunders bought in, recommitted himself and put what he thought he knew behind him, letting Mike Bard re-invent a big-league player.
Asked about the left-handed hitting Saunders last winter, one San Diego Padres scout laughed.
“He’s gone from prospect to one of those guys you think might be a fourth or fifth outfielder,” he said. “But you look at this guy, he still has tools you look for, you still think ‘Yeah, but if he figures it out…’
“If we had the chance, I’d take him. Not everyone gets it at 18. Some guys kick around for years, then find it and blossom. Saunders might be that kind of player.”
Saunders appears to be on the move and, finally, in the right direction. He’s batting .267 against left-handed pitchers this season, is third on the team with 44 walks and second in runs scored (68).
As important, Wedge said, Saunders wants to be a better player — and has the ability and intangibles to make a run at it.
“Saunders works, he watches, he listens,” Wedge said. “He’s an example to some of our young guys — look what you can do in an off-season. Don’t think you’ll get better, go out and make yourself better.
“Michael came to camp without a job, without any guarantee of a big-league job, and had a great spring,” Wedge said. “When Gutierrez went down, he stepped into that role.
“He’s become a good player I think will be much, much better for all he’s gone through.”