Michael Saunders would like to forget that 2011 ever happened.
Would anyone blame him?
The Mariners centerfielder struggled all season long with Seattle, hitting .149 and striking out a whopping 56 times in just 161 at-bats for the big league club.
If the numbers weren’t bad enough, the way Saunders failed only exacerbated his, and Mariners’ fans, frustrations.
The bat rarely left his shoulder, and when it did, Saunders looked like he was swinging under water. Weak ground outs and pop ups, check swing strikeouts, and too many called third strikes to count.
He wasn’t just failing, he was imploding, and fans could see the young ballplayer unraveling at the seams. Little did they know the extent of Saunders struggles…
Off the field, his mother, Jane, was losing her 13-year battle with cancer. Michael had a special relationship with his mom, who was in attendance at Safeco Field on Mother’s Day 2010 when Saunders hit his first major league home run. Jane finally lost her battle with cancer in August, and Michael was granted an extended leave of absence by the Mariners to spend time with his family.
After six weeks away from baseball, Saunders returned to Triple-A Tacoma and hit well, posting a .864 OPS for the Rainiers. It looked like the Condor had finally turned a corner and was ready to take flight, but he came crashing back down to earth when he returned to the Mariners in September.
In 24 at-bats after being recalled by Seattle, Saunders collected just one hit (.042 BA) and struck out 11 times. There’s a difference between patience and passiveness at the plate, and Saunders was so timid that it looked like he didn’t even want to be there. Mariners fans yelled at their TVs, pleading with Saunders to swing, just swing, but nothing they said could clear his Ayers Rock-sized mental block.
The season ended, and Saunders struggles mercifully disappeared into the darkness of winter. Franklin Gutierrez would be back in 2012, and there was Casper Wells and Trayvon Robinson too. He’d been given every chance to succeed with the Mariners, and squandered them all like the prodigal son. Saunders was destined to be forgotten; another failed Mariners prospect in an overflowing pile of unfulfilled expectations.
Spring rolled around and Saunders reported to camp with talk of a new swing. It didn’t matter much at the time; plenty of players show up to spring training with a “new approach at the plate” or in “the best shape of their life” and it usually it amounts to a hill of beans. Besides, he was buried on the depth chart and ticketed for another season in Tacoma; who cared what his swing looked like?
Then, as quickly as it had been dismissed, his new swing suddenly mattered a whole lot. Franklin Gutierrez, the surefire Opening Day starter, suffered a tear in his pectoral muscle and Saunders, the player who had appeared to run out of opportunities, was suddenly front and center.
Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! If confidence had a sound, it was the noise the ball made as it met Saunders’ suddenly potent bat. He was no longer on the defensive at the plate, he was in attack mode and lasering base hits to all fields. The browbeaten boy of 2011 was gone; in his place stood a self-assured man with something to prove.
As the Mariners travel to Japan to open the season against the Oakland Athletics on March 28th, Saunders isn’t just the starter in center by default, he’s earned it.
The Condor has risen from the ashes of seasons past and spread his wings, knowing this year might finally be his last chance.
He just can’t let this one go by like another called third strike…