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Saturday, March 3, 2012 - Page updated at 07:32 p.m.

Mariners' Michael Saunders stays hot in Cactus League opener

By Geoff Baker
Seattle Times staff reporter

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Michael Saunders is grasping on to more these days than just heavier bats.

His early-spring success, which carried over Friday in an 8-5 win by the Mariners over the Oakland Athletics in their Cactus League opener, has given him hope he can land a center field job now up for grabs. And that has everything to do with the big bat he's swinging both literally and figuratively.

Saunders put Seattle ahead to stay with a two-run, second-inning home run, one of five long balls belted by the Mariners off Oakland pitching.

"So far, the early results are encouraging to me," Saunders said. "Not just from a physical side, but my mentality, as well. I've got to remain positive and aggressive and confident. That's the biggest thing for me.

"I was very passive last year. I didn't trust myself. I was a little lost and I think it showed. I've learned a lot from that."

Jesus Montero and Carlos Peguero also hit two-run homers for the Mariners while Luis Rodriguez and Johermyn Chavez hit solo blasts in front of 6,316 fans on a day a stiff wind at Phoenix Municipal Stadium was helping balls carry.

Saunders has used a revamped stance and more compact swing, not to mention a 60-ounce bat — nearly double the normal weight he uses — during batting practice to help him maintain form. His in-game bat has also undergone a size change.

"It's just a bigger head and a longer barrel," Saunders said of the 31-ounce Louisville D-195 L model he uses as opposed to his previous C-271 L. "It's feeling very comfortable. I'm seeing the ball well."

Saunders put up impressive early numbers in three intrasquad games. Saunders hopes to parlay those and good Cactus League performances into an opening-day job now that the Mariners are seeking a replacement for injured Franklin Gutierrez for at least the season's first month and likely more.

And with three weeks to go before the Mariners head to Japan to open their regular season against Oakland, Saunders has that much time to demonstrate that his early numbers can hold up.

"A lot of people will say it's just intrasquad, but at the same time it's still competition out there," said Saunders, who went 4 for 7 with a home run, a double and three walks in those three games. "Even though it's really early on, seeing your hard work come into play and having some success is very encouraging. I know that I'm headed in the right direction. I was searching for answers this offseason and I feel that I've found them."

The Mariners didn't know quite what to make of Saunders and his work this past winter in Colorado with private instructor Mike Bard — brother of onetime Mariners catcher Josh Bard. Mariners hitting coach Chris Chambliss was kept updated, but adopted a wait-and-see approach this spring in order to decide whether he was good with the shorter, tighter swing and approach employed by Saunders.

So far, he has no problems with what he's seen.

"I've done nothing with him other than what I did last year," Chambliss said. "He's on a mission in his mind, I think, and he's come out swinging so far. And that's kind of what we want to see from him."

Chambliss had been preaching a tighter swing and staying more compact to Saunders throughout his disastrous offensive season last year. Saunders hit just .149 with a .424 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in the majors as the replacement center fielder for Gutierrez to start the year.

Saunders was dealing with off-field distractions as well, as his mother was dying of cancer and eventually succumbed to the illness after he was demoted to Class AAA in June. He tried a variety of approaches and stances throughout the rest of his minor-league season, but never really got comfortable.

Heading into the winter, it was clear something had to change. The Mariners still have a year of minor-league options left with Saunders this season, but, at age 25, this is likely his final chance to leave a spring-training mark with the only organization he's ever known.

Mariners manager Eric Wedge said he's keeping his options open, but likes what he's seen from Saunders.

"He's been real good all spring," Wedge said. "He's up there ready to hit. He's got a different look in his eye. He's walking around with some confidence. We've talked about this before, this is a guy who's worked hard on every aspect of his game. The hitting has been just a little bit tardy for him."

In other words, if he hits, the job could be Saunders' to lose.

"I'm just bringing fire and passion to the game, expecting to do damage every time I come to the plate," Saunders said. "I think when you have that kind of attitude, it actually helps you to be more patient, to see the ball better even though you're hunting the baseball. I just came into camp hungry this year. Excited."

And now, with a chance to bail the Mariners out of a huge jam before their season even begins.

Notes

• Montero was said to be fine after taking a pair of foul tips off his jaw area. Montero was pulled from the game for precautionary reasons, but looked fine walking around the clubhouse.

Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or gbaker@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @gbakermariners.

Seattle Oakland
AB R H BI AB R H BI
M.Kawski ss 3 0 0 0 J.Weeks 2b 3 1 1 1
C.Triunfel ss 2 0 0 0 Powell c 2 0 1 0
Seager 3b 3 1 1 0 Fiorentino pr 0 0 0 0
F.Martnz 3b 1 0 0 0 Pningtn ss 2 0 0 0
C.Wells lf 2 0 0 0 Sogard ss-3b 2 1 1 1
T.Robinsn lf 1 0 1 0 Crisp cf 2 0 1 1
J.Montero c 3 2 1 2 Taylor rf 3 0 0 0
Jaso c 1 0 0 0 M.Rmrez dh 2 0 0 0
Peguero rf 3 1 1 2 J.Gmes ph-dh 1 1 0 0
J.Chavez rf 1 1 1 1 S.Smith lf 2 0 0 0
V.Catrcla dh 3 0 0 0 Cowgill cf 2 0 0 0
L.Jmnz ph-dh 1 0 0 0 Reddick rf 2 0 2 0
Liddi 1b 3 1 1 0 Pridie lf 1 1 1 0
R.Morla 1b 1 0 0 0 K.Suzuki c 2 0 0 0
M.Saundrs cf 3 1 1 2 W.Tmmns 2b 2 0 1 2
Ford cf 1 0 1 0 Allen 1b 2 1 2 0
L.Rodrgz 2b 2 1 1 1 Ka'aihue 1b 1 0 0 0
Franklin 2b 2 0 0 0 M.Choice ph 1 0 0 0
Donldsn 3b 3 0 0 0
J.Horton ss 0 0 0 0
Carter ph 1 0 0 0
Totals 36 8 9 8 Totals 36 5 10 5
Seattle 020 230 010 8
Oakland 100 012 100 5
E — J.Montero (1), F.Martinez (1), J.Weeks (1). DP — Oakland 2. LOB — Seattle 2, Oakland 7. 2B — Liddi (1), J.Weeks (1), Pridie (1), Allen (1). HR — J.Montero (1), Peguero (1), J.Chavez (1), M.Saunders (1), L.Rodriguez (1), Sogard (1). SB — Reddick (1). CS — T.Robinson (1).
Mariners IP H R ER BB SO
Beavan W, 1-0 2 1/3 4 1 1 1 1
Fox 2/3 0 0 0 0 0
O.Perez 1 1 0 0 0 0
Kelley 1 1 1 0 0 1
C.Jimenez 1 2 2 2 0 2
Delabar 1 1 1 1 0 1
Ruffin 1 0 0 0 1 0
Henn S,1-1 1 1 0 0 0 0
Athletics IP H R ER BB SO
Godfrey L, 0-1 2 2 2 2 1 4
Milone 2 1 2 1 0 3
Balfour 1 3 3 3 0 1
Devine 1 0 0 0 0 0
P.Figueroa 1 0 0 0 0 0
De Los Santos 1 2 1 1 0 0
Norberto 1 1 0 0 0 0
HBP — by C.Jimenez (J.Gomes). WP — C.Jimenez, Norberto. PB — J.Montero. A — 6,316.

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