Classic experience raises Saunders' confidence
Mariners outfielder eager to maintain intensity following MVP performance
PEORIA, Ariz. -- After Michael Saunders had a breakthrough season with the Mariners last year, manager Eric Wedge insisted the athletic outfielder was just scratching the surface of what he could do as a baseball player.
And last week in the World Baseball Classic, the 25-year-old Saunders proved his skipper's point, winning Most Valuable Player honors for the Pool D group after batting .727 (8-for-11) with three doubles, a home run and seven RBIs in three games for Canada.
With Canada eliminated by Sunday's 9-4 loss to the United States, Saunders rejoined the Mariners on Tuesday and said he learned valuable lessons he hopes will carry over into 2013.
"It was an unbelievable experience," Saunders said. "I'm so happy I was able to be part of something like that. It was tough leaving the boys and not moving on, but I was really excited to come back and get back together with the Mariners and start concentrating on the upcoming season.
"It was a playoff atmosphere. Every game counted. And whenever you're representing your country, it really doesn't matter how well you do as long as your club wins. I've never been to the playoffs, but I have to imagine that's what it kind of feels like."
Some fans question the wisdom of players leaving their Major League teams in the middle of Spring Training to play in the Classic, but Saunders said it was of great benefit to him. He hit fifth in Canada's lineup behind Justin Morneau and Joey Votto and had his eyes open the whole time to that experience.
"It's gotten me ready," he said. "I feel like I could start the season right now and do just fine. Hitting behind guys like Morneau and Votto, you can learn a lot from them and just seeing how they go about their business. They're professionals and they're an American League MVP and a National League MVP. So we were in pretty good company."
Playing with those stars and playing against an All-Star-studded lineup from the United States as well as competitive teams from Mexico and Italy, it was Saunders who was selected the MVP for his red-hot week.
He said he felt locked in at the plate and hopes to stay there going forward. He acknowledged he'll need to dial back a little mentally for the next three weeks of Spring Training, a situation similar to what the Mariners faced last year after opening the regular season in Japan and then returning to Cactus League play for a week.
But the intensity he felt in the World Baseball Classic is something he'd like to channel throughout this season.
"Yeah, I actually had a little trouble going to sleep last night," Saunders said. "My heart has been racing and I haven't really been able to calm down yet. That's how much emotion went into those baseball games. So I don't know. I know these are still Spring Training games, but they'll be taken seriously by me.
"What I had for those games, that's the attitude I need to have on a daily basis come season time. That's the biggest thing I learned from it."
That emotion spilled over in Saturday's ninth-inning brawl with Mexico, a situation Saunders can smile about now. At the time, he was in the middle of the melee trying to protect teammates and stand up for his squad.
Now he's back in the Mariners clubhouse with reliever Oliver Perez, who was heavily involved in the skirmish on the other side. The two didn't even see each other during the fight and Saunders said he was looking forward to reuniting on friendlier terms.
"I'll give him a big hug," Saunders said. "It is what it is. It's a part of the game not many people realize, because you don't ever see it. This is a man's game and you have to stand up for your teammates. Especially on an international level, your emotions are running high and it just boiled over. Everybody did what they needed to do. We took care of business and stood up for our teammates and friends. … Ollie and I have been friends for a while now and nothing is going to change."
As for his own role? Saunders said he was just glad to come out of it in one piece.
"Luckily I didn't get hurt," he said. "On those kinds of things you have to keep your head on a swivel because punches are coming from left, right and center. It was certainly the biggest baseball brawl I've ever been a part of and I'm sure it was entertaining to watch. Hey, we made Hockey Night in Canada with Don Cherry, so it must have been good."
Saunders was good as well in a week when he made both Canada and the Mariners proud.
"He had a heckuva series," said Wedge. "He was swinging the bat here well for us before he went there and he was looking forward to playing for his country. And obviously he did a fantastic job for them."
But Saunders belongs to the Mariners and they were thrilled to see him back in the clubhouse, with teammates greeting him with a stream of well wishes and handshakes throughout the morning.
"They were proud of me and all gave me high-fives and hugs and said they were glad to have me back," he said. "And likewise, I'm happy to be back in a Mariners uniform again.
"It's tough leaving the boys and taking off the Canadian jersey, but I said going into this thing that first and foremost I'm a Mariner and I'm excited to be back and see my buddies here and continue to help get ready for the season."