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Originally published Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 9:01 PM

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Once lost, M's Michael Saunders finds himself — and his swing

Mariners' young outfielder spent offseason working hard, and the results have been impressive so far this spring.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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I was honored to be at spring training last week and was blessed to have Michael... MORE
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And sign up Mike Bard to coach struggling hitters throughout the organization!!! MORE

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PEORIA, Ariz. — Michael Saunders makes the declaration without stammering, blinking or clarifying.

"I feel like I've answered my own questions, and to be honest, I'm ready to answer everybody else's questions now, too," the 25-year-old outfielder says.

Then it's no wonder why an interview with Saunders is so free flowing now. You don't probe him as much as you observe while he examines himself and offers frank answers. He speaks with such confidence and openness because he's comfortable, finally. After three years of big-league cameos, after hitting .196 in his first 635 major-league plate appearances, after succumbing to mental and physical strife a year ago, Saunders is no longer a fidgety prospect uncertain whether he can make it with the Mariners. Now, he's tough and confident and, just maybe, the reason that life without center fielder Franklin Gutierrez won't be so bad.

You know Michael Saunders, right? Nice, athletic kid who plays good defense but will never hit enough to be a significant major-leaguer? Saunders knows the label, too. Thing is, that's not good enough for him anymore.

You heard during the offseason and early spring about his efforts to improve at the plate. Well, they're working. He's hitting .417 in nine games this spring, and he's the likely opening-day starter in center field. It's a small sample size, yes, but even more encouraging than the early results is that Saunders believes in himself again.

"Last year, I struggled," said Saunders, who hit .149 in 58 games. "I was bad. I felt lost. I was scared to fail. I kept digging myself deeper and deeper into a hole that I couldn't get out of. I was so passive. Not anymore.

"I might not always have success, but I'm going to approach the game aggressively. If I'm going to go down, I'm going to go down swinging like a man."

How interesting that he used the simile "like a man." That's what his story is about — becoming an adult. Maturation. Three years ago, Saunders broke into the big leagues at age 22, a hot prospect that former Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu called "our left fielder of the future." While he's had some promising moments, Saunders has never hit consistently enough to grow from prospect to quality player.

Last season was especially difficult. He was struggling on the field, but off it, his mother, Jane, was losing a 13-year battle with cancer. She died last August. Understandably, baseball was not his priority.

Saunders just endured in 2011. He managed his emotions as best he could. He played the game as best he could. He leaned on his wife, Jessica, and waited for life to make sense again.

After the season, he hired a hitting coach, Mike Bard, the brother of former Mariners catcher Josh Bard. For 10 days, they began working on what would spur Saunders' turnaround: making his swing shorter and more compact, helping him use the lower half of his body better. Saunders worked with Bard for that short period and then went to Venezuela for winter ball.

Though he struggled in Venezuela, Saunders believed in his new approach. After he returned, he worked with Bard for the rest of the offseason. His routine involved using resistance bands to keep his swing and lower body under control, and he started using a 60-ounce bat in the batting cage to make him use his whole body.

"I had to stop being such a handsy hitter," Saunders said.

He also used the offseason to heal.

"Now, I feel like she's free," Saunders said of his mother. "She had been battling cancer for 13 years, but finally, she was at peace. After I was able to get away from the game this offseason, I feel like I finally grieved. Then, I was really ready to turn my attention back to baseball."

Saunders said he was "desperate for answers" this offseason. He found them. Now, he's ready to play his best baseball.

"He looks like a totally different hitter," manager Eric Wedge said. "He's up there ready to hit, and he's walking around, he's stronger, he's got a little swagger to him, more presence at home plate. He has all the tools, and I like the fact that he is up there ready to compete."

You won't know whether Saunders has truly improved until the regular season begins and the best pitchers start challenging him more. But Saunders feels ready. He's only 25, but it seems as if he has received a lot of chances. He appreciates the Mariners' patience with him, and it's time to reward the organization for its faith.

Go ahead. Question him. Doubt him even, if you must. Saunders isn't lost anymore. He isn't passive.

And maybe, even though Gutierrez is out with a pectoral injury, center field isn't an unmanageable problem.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @Jerry_Brewer

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