He’s three games into the Major League Baseball Cactus League season with his Seattle Mariners, but Michael Saunders is keen to what lies just around the corner.
The Victoria product is set to join the rest of Canada’s top ball players for the World Baseball Classic, taking time away from patrolling the outfield with the Mariners to donning the Maple Leaf, along with the likes of Joey Votto, Justin Morneau, Brett Lawrie and good friend and Courtenay native Taylor Green.
“I can’t wait. I’m really excited about it,” Saunders said over the phone just days into Mariners’ spring training camp in Peoria, Arizona. “I’m a Mariner first, but I’m looking forward to representing my country. I haven’t put on a Canadian uniform in quite some time.
“Getting to represent your country is a definite honour, a proud moment,” he added. “Some guys, for health reasons or contract reasons, aren’t able to play. But, overall, it’s the best players of each country representing their country and it should be great competition.”
The Victoria Mariners’ alumnus was recovering from a shoulder injury that kept him out of the 2009 event after he represented the country at the 2008 Olympics.
Canada wasted little time adding the six-foot-four, 225-pound fielder to this year’s roster.
Saunders and the rest of the team will get together on Monday in preparation for the competition, in which it will compete with Italy, Mexico and the U.S. in Pool D.
“Canadians, in baseball, are a pretty tight little fraternity and I’m really excited about seeing the guys. It'll be a nice little reunion,” said Saunders, who will have a short trip from Peoria to nearby Goodyear [the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds complex] where Canada will train.
“I haven’t seen Taylor in a bit. I see him every now and again on TV on the highlights. I grew up with him, played together through Team B.C. or Canada. We’ve been buddies for a while and I’m excited to be able to put on a Canadian uniform with him again.”
Saunders’ Mariners are scheduled to face Green’s Brewers today in Cactus League play.
The World Cup starts Friday. Canada opens against Italy on March 7, before facing Mexico the next day and the favoured U.S. on March 10. The top two teams will advance to the second round in Miami.
In the meantime, Saunders has seen action in two Mariners pre-season games, recording one hit (a double) and an RBI in five at-bats. He did not play in Monday’s 9-8 win over the Angels.
“I’m trying to continue to get better and learn,” Saunders said of the upcoming MLB season. “The goal is to stay consistent and get better every day.”
He’s expected to get a chance to play where needed, in every position in the outfield and just recently signed a one-year deal after missing out on Super 2 status (in which he would have had arbitration rights) by one day of service.
“I can laugh about it now, but when I found out, it was a little gut-wrenching,” the 26-year-old admitted. “I can laugh now, but that’s the nature of baseball. I just have to go out there and take care of business.”
He’s coming off a season in which he permanently patrolled centre-field after an injury to Franklin Gutierrez. Saunders hit .247 with 19 home runs, 31 doubles and 57 RBIs. He also stole 21 bases.
“I think if I stay true to myself, my numbers will be there in the end,” he said of the new campaign. “I want to stay more consistent and as an offensive guy, get the barrel [of the bat] on the ball as much as I can; ultimately try and take my best swing as much as I can and not get fooled. If I stay true to that, I think I’ll like the end result.”
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