Blue Jays’ Saunders passing every trial that comes his way

Blue Jays manager John Gibbons discusses Michael Saunders and Gavin Floyd as two key pieces to this year's club.

BRADENTON, Fla. – With each additional game Michael Saunders faces a new test. So far he’s been passing them.

On Wednesday the 29-year-old played left field in a game for the first time since May. Thursday he collected his first hit of the spring, a two-run single off of left-hander Jon Niese.

He felt the nerves set in when he returned to the field for first time since last May.

“I had the butterflies going. I was nervous. It was a big moment for me [Wednesday],” Saunders said. ”Getting that one aside I felt a lot more comfortable out there [Thursday]. I was able to breathe. No butterflies this time.”

Saunders missed nearly all of the 2015 season after tearing his meniscus and later suffering a bone bruise in his left knee. Now that the bruise has cleared he feels great.

“My knee feels fantastic,” he said. “It’s not even really a concern. It’s more of a maintenance thing and a strengthening thing than anything, but as far as health it’s 100 per cent.”

That means icing the area post-game, and ensuring that the surrounding muscles are strong enough to absorb as much impact as possible. The Blue Jays will also ease Saunders in early in camp, testing his ability to play on consecutive days without overdoing it.

“That’s what we’ll try to do before we start pushing him even further,” manager John Gibbons said.

With four weeks of spring training remaining, there’s still plenty of time to get the 60-70 at-bats Saunders would like to log before opening day. Gibbons said Thursday that he tentatively plans to give Saunders a day off Friday before putting him back in the lineup for consecutive games over the weekend.

“It’s his knees, not ours, so he knows how it feels,” Gibbons said.

The Blue Jays acquired Saunders for J.A. Happ in December of 2014 in the hopes that he could balance out the batting order with some power from the left side. At the time, the Blue Jays believed Saunders could build on career highs of 139 games and 19 home runs, established with the 2012 Seattle Mariners. Those plans never materialized when Saunders stepped on an exposed sprinkler early last spring.

“We were counting on him last year and we’re counting on him again this year,” Gibbons said. “He’s a big part of this team. We need him to be good”

Saunders, a candidate to lead off for the Blue Jays, has historically hit right-handed pitching better than left-handed pitching. But he’s seen plenty of left-handers this week, a development he’s pleased with. Facing southpaws early will allow him to build up his comfort level before opening day.

“We need to get him playing,” Gibbons said. “It’s really starting over for him, so that’s going to give him some confidence.”

While skeptics may point to Saunders’ history of injuries, he’s able to tune their voices out. As someone who doesn’t have a social media presence, the criticism’s easy enough to avoid.

“I’m going to have to go looking for it if I really want to find it,” he said.