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Is Joe Saunders anyone's favorite player? Are there kids in Orange County or Phoenix or Seattle who insisted on his jersey for their birthday? He's a valuable player to have at the back of a pitching staff and has built a nice career for himself, but the guy contributes nothing to the fan experience.
Or so I thought.
No, Saunders didn't miss a ton of bats tonight. Just four, actually. He didn't throw any Bugs Bunny changeups. He didn't thump his chest or wink at the camera or do anything else that might have drawn attention.
And yet, this was as entertaining a start as he'll give us this season. Saunders pounded the zone with quality strikes, was incredibly efficient over nine innings, and helped to get the pathetic Safeco Field crowd out of there in just two hours and twelve minutes, the shortest Mariners game of the season to date. The Orioles couldn't get anything going outside of a two-run Matt Wieters home run.
What made him so successful? I don't know, exactly. Saunders operates on the slimmest of margins and it can be difficult to see the difference between good Saunders and bad Saunders. I've tried to pay extra attention to what he's doing when he's rolling in hopes that something would stand out, but I inevitably begin zoning out or surfing the web while he's throwing. He is incapable of holding my attention, so the least he can do is throw a speed-round of fielding practice like he did tonight.
- Saunders had the best groundball rate of all Mariners rotation members coming into this start and expanded his lead by picking up 17 groundouts to just 2 flyouts. His groundball rate is now 52%, putting him into the top 20 among starting pitchers this season. I've always thought of Saunders as an extreme fly ball pitcher but his career numbers don't really bear that out. I think the perception could come from his tendency cough up more than his share of gopher balls, a product of not having the stuff to get away with mistakes, and the idea that pitching in a big park like Safeco Field could help him in that regard.
- The other Saunders, Michael, returned from the disabled list with a bang, smashing a leadoff home run to deep right-center to give the hometown nine an early lead. He also drew a hard-earned walk and showed his typically strong defense and baserunning. What were the odds a couple years back that Saunders would mean this much to the team?
- Jason Bay went 3-for-4 with a double, lifting his season line to .269/.367/.423 over 60 plate appearances, good for a 129 wRC+. Meanwhile, Casper Wells is now on his third team since leaving Seattle, having been traded from the Oakland Athletics to the Chicago White Sox. I didn't get the decision to keep Bay over Wells either, but there are things about Bay we didn't consider and things about Wells we didn't consider. I don't know what they are, but they're almost certainly there.
- Kyle Seager was 2-for-4 with a single and a triple. Who was the last Mariner hitter to inspire as much confidence as Seager?
- We went through it with Jack Wilson, but it's such a shame that Brendan Ryan's offensive struggles are jeopardizing his status as a starting shortstop. Because, art:
This wasn't a "web gem." This wasn't a spectacular play by Major League standards, and certainly not by Brendan Ryan standards. And yet I found myself thinking about this play more than any other in the game. Ryan's spinning throws up the middle -- always fluid, almost strong, always on the money -- are one of those recurring plays that will never stop delighting me for reasons I cannot properly articulate.
I never know how to convince non-baseball fans that baseball is worth watching. I find myself sticking to the cliches, talking about the chess match between hitter and pitcher or some other nonsense. But it's plays like this that help me through nine innings. It's the subtleties easily lost, same as Jack Wilson's footwork around the bag, or Franklin Gutierrez's ability to be moving in the right direction seemingly before contact is made, or Adrian Beltre coming to a screeching halt before throwing a flat-footed rocket across the diamond for the assist. It's the things Ray would point out to his daughter if these players weren't in Seattle, weren't in heaven, but were in Iowa.