Blue Jays’ Saunders showing power as comeback continues

Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Michael Saunders. (Frank Gunn/CP)

DUNEDIN, Fla. — On a day he homered in each of his first two at-bats, it was an opposite-field single that stood out for Michael Saunders.

"To tell you the truth, I’m more happy about the third at-bat," Saunders said Saturday. "I was able to hit the ball hard the other way and I think that’s when I start going good is when I start driving the ball the other way and letting the ball travel while staying on it. I’m just getting more and more comfortable with every at-bat."

Saunders missed nearly all of the 2015 season because of a torn meniscus and ensuing bone bruise in his left knee. He’s been feeling 100 per cent for a while, but playing in Grapefruit League games has given him further confidence.

"It’s different knowing you’re healthy than playing with it," Saunders said. "That’s something I’ve been able to shut out. I don’t have to think about it anymore."

In fact, Saunders considers that mental challenge the final part of the rehab process.

"Being able to play free and easy is something I wasn’t able to do last year," Saunders said. "I knew it was going to be the biggest test. I think the last five to 10 per cent of rehab is getting over that mental hurdle of knowing that you’re healthy."

So far this spring Saunders has faced plenty of left-handed pitching and chased more than his share of balls down in left field. As manager John Gibbons says, so far, so good.

"I don’t see him hobbling around. That’s a big thing," Gibbons said before the game. "It’s always in the back of everybody’s mind when he shows up. It’s a long spring, so we’ll see how that plays out in the next month. I know he’s encouraged. I like what I see. Now we’ve got to get him some at-bats, because he missed so much time. Get him cranking."

Two home runs should certainly qualify as cranking. The nerves have also started to subside for Saunders, who’s pencilled in as the Blue Jays’ starting left fielder as long as his knee holds up for the duration of spring training.

"I feel like this is my first big league camp all over again," he said. "Certainly a lot of nerves, butterflies, excitement, feeling like a kid out there again. Now that I’ve got a couple games under my belt I’m still incredibly thankful that I’m here right now after last year, but the butterflies I’m over that stage right now and starting to get more comfortable."

If this keeps up, he may reach the point where he no longer has to respond to questions about his knee.

"Well I’m still getting (them), but hopefully they’re starting to die down," he said. "Hopefully I’m answering some questions right now."