Michael Saunders, the disappointment still fresh, sat at a table flanked by the MVP trophy that simply couldn't be denied him, even in defeat...
PHOENIX — Michael Saunders, the disappointment still fresh, sat at a table flanked by the MVP trophy that simply couldn’t be denied him, even in defeat.
“I think we showed the world that Canada is here to stay,” he said.
And, without a doubt, Saunders showed the world — or at least that portion of it that cares about baseball — that he is not only one of Canada’s elite players, but perhaps poised to break out as one of the game’s elite, regardless of nationality.
Team Canada was positioned for one of its greatest victories on Sunday, buoyed by Saunders’ two-run homer in the second. And Team USA was nearing its most ignominious failure in the World Baseball Classic, a tournament with which it has yet to cover itself with much glory.
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But six outs from a victory that would have knocked out the Americans, and allowed the Canadians to join Team Italy in advancing to the next round, it all crumbled. USA scored three in the eighth and four in the ninth to take a 9-4 victory at Chase Field.
Team USA thus advances to Miami for the next round, and we can all put our “Why don’t the Americans take the WBC seriously?” rants on hold.
The Canadians, who bonded over a street hockey game at Justin Morneau’s Phoenix-area home and during a wild brawl against the Mexican team, will reluctantly disband. They’ll head back to their various major-league camps to resume the mundane chores of spring training.
For Saunders, he’ll rejoin the Mariners in Peoria with his reputation having been elevated immeasurably. In a tournament field packed with All-Stars, he was the best of them. Saunders’ stat line reads like something out of Little League: eight hits in 11 at-bats, three doubles, a homer, four runs, seven runs batted in, two walks, a .727 batting average, .769 on-base percentage and 1.273 slugging percentage.
Even his teammates were awed by the performance, which overshadowed two former league MVPs on Team Canada, Justin Morneau (no slouch himself with a .636 average) and Joey Votto.
“He blew me away,” said Jameson Taillon, the 21-year-old starting pitcher for Canada on Sunday. “Seriously, just sitting back and watching him play was incredible. Every time you look at him in the box, he’s hitting the ball hard, hustling. Today, you saw him, he hit a home run and he laid down a bunt for a hit. He can do it all. He’s fun to watch.”
Team Canada manager Ernie Whitt noted that Saunders’ emerging talents, evident in last year’s 19-homer, 21-stolen base breakout season with the Mariners, are obscured by playing in what he seems to regard as a baseball ghost town.
“Playing in Seattle, they just don’t have the media coverage,” Whitt said. “But he’s just a tremendous up-and-coming outfielder that’s going to be a superstar.”
All that flattery was not foremost on Saunders’ mind, however. He was truly bumming over having to part ways with his weeklong teammates.
“It’s going to be tough to leave these guys,” he said. “Canadians and baseball, I always describe it as a tight fraternity. We may go our separate ways for a few years, but when we come back it’s like we haven’t skipped a beat.
“We have a lot of fun playing the game, we play hard, we play it the right way. But I am looking forward to getting back into the clubhouse in Seattle and continuing to try to learn. Now my focus is with the Mariners and helping the Mariners win ball games.”
When the Mariners reconvene Tuesday after a day off, Saunders will no doubt be inundated with questions about the corker of a brawl on Saturday against Mexico. Mariners brass will no doubt be relieved to learn he emerged unscathed. But that’s not to say Saunders wasn’t in the middle of the fray.
“I think everyone was in the middle of it, like you’re supposed to be,” he said. “You’re supposed to be able to stand up for your teammates. At that point, yeah, you have to have your head on a swivel, but you’re more worried about your teammates than anything. It doesn’t look nearly as bad being out there as if you’re the last one in the dugout. You have to take care of business, you have to stand up for yourself, and we did that.”
In coming so close to ousting the Americans, Saunders hopes that they inspired a generation of impressionable young Canadian athletes, just like he had been growing up in Victoria, B.C.
“I feel like it starts with guys like Larry Walker, Morneau, Votto, these guys that have had success and really showing the world and showing our kids growing up that Canada’s not just a hockey country any more.
“I know that I idolized these guys growing up and watched these guys on TV. I feel like that they really helped me fall in love with the game and pursue my dream. I hope that, just being mentioned with those names, some kids like me, back when I was watching these guys play, will continue to pursue their dreams in baseball.”
Now Saunders will try to use his WBC success as the springboard to a Mariners season that builds upon last year. This offseason, he resumed his work with Mike Bard on shortening his swing. The Mariners had long preached the same message, but Bard’s methods resonated the previous winter.
“I tried to continue with that process this offseason and do more fine tuning and be very critical on myself and really be hard on myself to try to take the next step to the next level,” Saunders said.
Judging by the WBC, Saunders is on his way. The regret for him is that Team Canada isn’t.
|Schedule for World Baseball Classic:|
|Tuesday||U.S. vs. D.R.-P.R. loser*|
|Tuesday||Italy vs. D.R.-P.R. winner*|
|Monday||Cuba vs. Netherlands**|
|Tuesday||Cuba-Neth. winner vs. Japan**|
|* in Miami; ** in Tokyo (Note: Taiwan already eliminated from quarterfinals)|