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Originally published Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 8:04 PM

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Saunders recalls toughest game, pitching days after deadly shooting at Virginia Tech, his alma mater | Mariners

The biggest game Joe Saunders ever pitched didn't come during last October's postseason or any of the other four he's been in. Saunders, 31, pitched the...

Seattle Times staff reporter

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PEORIA, Ariz. — The biggest game Joe Saunders ever pitched didn't come during last October's postseason or any of the other four he's been in.

Saunders, 31, pitched the Baltimore Orioles into the playoffs last year by starting and winning the inaugural American League wild-card game against the Texas Rangers at Camden Yards. But he learned plenty about taking care of business on the mound during a much different start for the Angels six years ago against a Mariners team he now calls his own.

Saunders was the only Virginia Tech alum in the majors in April 2007, when he started against Seattle just four days after a gunman killed 32 people and wounded 17 others at the school's campus. With special Major League Baseball permission, Saunders donned a Virginia Tech cap that night and handcuffed the Mariners over six shutout innings at Angel Stadium. He also had "VT" inscribed on his cleats and drew the school logo on the back of the pitching mound

"That's probably the most nervous I've ever been in a game," Saunders said as he took the field with Mariners pitchers and catchers for their first spring-training workout. "Just because of the sheer fact that you're wearing your school colors. You're wearing the hat and you want to do so well for the school. You want to win."

And pushing himself through the emotions of that night is something Saunders says taught him how to get the job done.

"It was a tough experience, to be honest with you," he said of that 2007 start. "It was pretty gut-wrenching. I just remember thinking, hey, if I can get this win and have the Virginia Tech faithful get their mind off what's going on, give them something to smile about, or take their mind off of it, that was my goal."

It was at Virginia Tech, where he attended from 1999 through 2002, that Saunders met his wife, Shanel Garofalo, a Vancouver, B.C., native and softball player at the school. Both of his parents attended the university, and Saunders had kept in contact with former coach Chuck Hartman and several teammates, so the shooting hit very close to home.

As the night of his start approached, Saunders was flooded with calls of support. They grew in number, from Virginia Tech alumni and students Saunders didn't even know, after he pitched the Angels to victory against the Mariners.

"I got a lot of text messages and phone calls, just people saying, 'Hey, thank you, it meant a lot,' " he said. To this day, he's carried that night with him and feels he's a better pitcher because of it.

"I think it gives you a lot of confidence," he said. "It gives you confidence in yourself that in the big games and the big situations, you can get the job done."

The Mariners hope Saunders can help fill the void left by the trade of Jason Vargas to the Angels. Saunders balked at a chance to return to the Orioles after they took the Yankees to a decisive Game 5 in the AL Division Series and instead signed a one-year, incentive-laden $6.5 million deal with the Mariners.

"I liked where this organization was going," he said. "I thought they made some good moves, some good trades. I'm familiar with the division and hoping to have some fun. Try to take another team, hopefully, to the postseason."

Saunders is 6-0 with a 2.13 earned-run average in nine starts at Safeco Field. He says he "loves" to pitch there, albeit that was before the Mariners decided to move in the fences.

That could be a problem if right-handers continue to hit Saunders like they did last year, when they batted .307 off him, with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .849. But some of that might have had to do with pitching home games in hitter-friendly parks, first at Chase Field in Arizona and then Camden Yards after the Diamondbacks traded him to Baltimore midseason.

Saunders said the fences coming in really didn't factor into his decision.

"You've just got to be careful middle-in to these right-handed hitters," he said. "So, other than that, you just keep pitching your game."

His numbers at Camden Yards were awful last year before he turned the tables on the Rangers in the wild-card game.

"It was a lot of fun," Saunders said. "It was nerve-wracking as heck. My numbers in that ballpark obviously weren't very good ... but you look at it as another opportunity to prove people wrong."

And to rise to the occasion years after the worst of times at his former school showed him how good he could be with something at stake.

"It was a special experience," he said, "and I'll never forget it."

Note

• The Mariners traded relief pitcher Shawn Kelley to the Yankees for Class AA outfielder Abraham Almonte, 23. Kelley was designated for assignment last week.

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