* OF Michael Saunders (Victoria, BC) is trying to help the Seattle Mariners win the Games 161 and Games 162 — hope that the Oakland A’s lost their final two — and take their chances in a playoff for the wild card playoff against the A’s.
By Melissa Couto
TORONTO — Every year before the season begins, Michael Saunders checks the Seattle Mariners schedule to see when he’ll be playing at certain ballparks.
Toronto’s Rogers Centre is one of them.
Though the Mariners outfielder grew up in Victoria — less than 200 kilometres from where he now plays in Seattle — Saunders still described himself a staunch Blue Jays fan as a kid.
And while he’s appeared in 18 games at Toronto’s stadium over the past five years, he maintains that the mystique of playing on the same field on which some of his childhood idols once did hasn’t worn off yet.
“I always enjoy coming here,” Saunders said during the Mariners’ four-game series against the Blue Jays last week. “I love the city, I love the Rogers Centre and it’s always a cool experience playing against the team I used to watch on a nightly basis.
“It was actually a rare occassion when we got a Mariners game on TV, but we got every Blue Jays game growing up. I liked Seattle because the team was close by, but I was a loyal Blue Jays fan, definitely.”
Saunders was five and six years old when Toronto won back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993. He remembers watching those games with his father, Derek, and learning to love the same players the elder Saunders did.
One of those players was John Olerud, who played for both the Jays and Mariners over his 17-year-career.
“My dad always used to tell me if there’s one left-handed swing to watch, it was Olerud’s,” said Saunders. “He was one of my dad’s favourite players so naturally I grew to like him and just loved watching him play.
“He had a sweet swing, he wasn’t trying to do too much but he had a lot of success with it.”
Now 27, Saunders is using his own left-handed swing to help the Mariners in the midst of a tight playoff race for the first time in his career.
Before Saturday’s games, Seattle sat two games back of the Oakland A’s for the final American League wild card spot with two games to play. Wins from the Mariners in both games coupled with losses by Oakland would set up a one-game playoff between the two teams on Monday.
Saunders, who’s batting .263 with a .329 on-base percentage through 75 games, hit a two-run home run in Seattle’s 4-3 win over the L.A. Angels on Friday to stave off elimination.
After missing nearly two months with a long, painful stint on the disabled list — first with a torn oblique in mid-July and then with a viral infection that ravaged his body in August — the Canadian is thrilled just to be a part of the action again.
The infection, which Saunders caught while on a rehad assignment at triple-A Tacoma for his original oblique injury, caused him to lose 12 pounds in less than two weeks.
When he was finally healthy enough to be reinstated from the DL (Sept. 8), he joined a Mariners team that was half a game up on Detroit for the second A.L. wild card.
Saunders says that tight post-season race was always on his mind throughout his recovery.
“The hardest thing for me about being away from the team was feeling like I was letting the guys down,” he said. “Our clubhouse feels like one big family and I’ve been playing with a lot of the guys for years now, and we’ve gone through some rough times over the last few years. This season is obviously different — contending in September, having meaningful games in September — and it’s a lot of fun now.
“But going through two months of not being able to do anything, just watching on TV or sitting on the bench, it was tough for me. We’ve worked so hard over the past few years to get to this point and I had to miss a good chunk of that.”
Playing alongside Saunders in Seattle is fellow Canadian James Paxton, who also missed a substantial amount of time on the disabled list this year — Apr. 8 to Aug. 2 — with a strained lat muscle.
The left-handed pitcher from Ladner, B.C., was 5-0 through the first six starts of his young career dating back to last season, and is 9-4 with a 2.53 ERA in 16 total starts.
“He’s been a rejuvenation,” Saunders said of the 25-year-old Paxton. “He missed the first few months but it was a nice pick-me-up when we got to put him back in the rotation.”
As teenagers, the Seattle teammates played against each other in the British Columbia Premier Baseball League, with Paxton pitching for the North Delta Blue Jays and Saunders manning the outfield for the Victoria Mariners.
Years after their BCPBL days, Saunders maintains he knew right away that Paxton — who was selected by Seattle in the fourth round of the 2010 draft — was a special talent.
“I really think he’s the real deal,” Saunders said. “With his September call-up last year, and what’s he’s done this year, he’s been incredible.
“He may be really young and inexperienced but he pitches beyond his years. He’s got an idea, he executes and he’s a lefty that throws mid- to upper-90’s, so that never hurts.”
— Follow Melissa Couto on Twitter @throwinsmoke