PITTSBURGH — There is little debate about the difference Michael Saunders makes in the Seattle Mariners lineup.
Since he’s returned from the disabled list on April 29, Saunders has returned to the leadoff spot and taken over in center field, making the Mariners simply a better team.
Tuesday’s 2-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park was a prime example of the impact he has had since he returned to action.
Saunders manufactured the Mariners’ first run on his own. Saunders broke up Pirates’ starter A.J. Burnett’s string of nine straight outs with a lead-off walk in the fourth inning.
Saunders — who is five-for-five in stolen base attempts this season — affected the Pirates pitcher’s concentration, with Burnett constantly giving second looks to first base. Saunders advanced to second on a wild pitch before Burnett walked the next batter, Jason Bay.
The two runners moved up on Kendrys Morales’ ground ball to third and Saunders scored on Burnett’s second wild pitch of the inning.
“He just brings energy when he’s on base,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said of Saunders.
It’s how Saunders plays. He’s not the fastest runner on the Mariners, but he might be the smartest, the most aggressive and easily the most successful.
“Every game, I’m looking to take the extra base whenever I can,” he said. “I’m looking to turn walks and singles into doubles. I feel that’s really the only way to play this game. You get better reads on balls in the dirt if you’re aggressive and looking for those. I’m always looking for the extra base.”
And Saunders is getting on base more and more. He had a career high three walks in the game — including two off Burnett — to push his on-base percentage to .362.
“After my first at-bat, I was looking for a fastball right down the middle,” he said. “His stuff moves all over the place. He throws everything hard. Honestly, my approach was a fastball right down the middle. I was able to battle on the pitches I needed to. His stuff moves all over the place, he’s got power stuff, so I tried to zone him up right down the middle of the plate.”
It’s something that Wedge would like to see other hitters do as well.
“What we need to continue to do is if they are not coming into to you, you need to lay your bat down and go to first base and give the next guy a turn,” he said. “I think it’s especially true for (Kendrys) Morales and (Michael) Morse. These are guys in the middle of our lineup and sometimes their hearts get in the way. They want to do it so much and they know they need to do it and they come out of the strike zone a little bit. Once they start to reel that in and allow themselves to lay the bat down and leave it to the next guy, that’s going to help them and help us so much too.”
On his second walk, Saunders stole second easily off Burnett and Pirates catcher Michael McKenry. It was his sixth stolen base of the season.
“Some guys are tough to run on and some guys are easier,” Saunders said. “A lot of study goes into it, a lot of hard work. I credit Brum (Mariners first-base coach Mike Brumley) with a lot of it. He’s helped me out so much the last couple of years. I take a lot of pride in my baserunning, trying to look for the edge every time. I’m confident I can get the extra base and I’m always looking for it.”
That edge that Saunders plays with is what Wedge loves about him.
“He’s out there hunting it,” Wedge said. “That’s the way he plays the game. He’s hunting the ball at home plate. He’s hunting the bag when he’s on the bases and he’s hunting the ball in center field. That’s one of the reasons he has a chance to be really special player in time.”
In seven starts this season with Jesus Montero catching him, Felix Hernandez has posted a 1.03 earned run average. In 13 career starts with Montero as his catcher, Hernandez has a 1.84 ERA. … It was the 24th time the Mariners won a game with three or less hits and four of those past five wins have come with Hernandez on the mound. … Tom Wilhelmsen is now 9-for-9 in save opportunities with a 0.60 ERA.