So, Michael Saunders, how’s your hamstring?
“It’s just some mild tightness. Just precautionary. It’s still spring training for me, so we aren’t going to push anything,” Saunders says from Dunedin, where he came out of a rehab game in the first inning Sunday afternoon when he felt a slight grab in his right hamstring after hitting a single and scoring three batters later. “I’m not worried about it at all. I might take a day to rest it. It would really be more of a breather. I haven’t had a day off since I started down here. Really, it’s nothing that’s alarming and nothing that I’m worried about.”
That news will no doubt come as a relief for Blue Jays fans who have followed the long, winding odyssey of Saunders’ pre-season through thick and thin. When he stepped on a sprinkler head and wrenched his left knee early in spring training, he was thought to be out for at least half the season. Then, when doctors operated on him and discovered his meniscus was so badly damaged that their only recourse would be to remove 60 percent of it, his return date was surprisingly bumped up to as early as the season’s opening week.
Which brings us to Sunday, when Saunders exited the game and left everyone wondering if he’d suffered a setback. He hasn’t. His knee has felt great and is responding terrifically to everything he’s tried to do on it. But as he’s started playing again post-surgery, Saunders has leaned a bit heavier on his uninjured right leg, which he thinks may have caused the slight hamstring tweak.
“When you have surgery on any body part, your body kind of goes into defensive mode trying to protect that area,” Saunders says. “I noticed it the moment I started picking up activity, my other muscles had kind of taken over for tying to protect my knee. So there definitely could have been a little bit of overcompensating there that caused this.”
Assuming his hamstring holds him out of action for only a day or two, that would put Saunders on track to join the Blue Jays in Toronto sometime during their upcoming homestand. And likely sooner rather than later.
What the Blue Jays want to see from Saunders now is for him to play the outfield for a full nine innings on consecutive days. Stealing a base and simulating a rundown situation will also be tests to pass before his activation, but those are a pair of exercises the 28-year-old doesn’t think he’ll have any trouble performing.
“I could steal a base right now. I should have no limitations. I’ve slid a few times and felt fine,” says Saunders, who may make a brief stop with the triple-A Buffalo Bisons before joining the Blue Jays. “Running the bases is part of my game, and my knee has responded to that really well.”
He’s already played the outfield, running out for five innings in left on Saturday. But Dunedin’s starter, Jayson Aquino, was cruising, which led to a drought of action in the outfield.
“Not one ball came my way. Not even a base hit. Just nothing,” Saunders laments. “But even still, just getting ready for every pitch, backing up bases, stuff like that—it felt really good being back out there.”
And at the plate?
“I’m seeing the ball well. I’m putting up good, competitive at-bats. I’m feeling comfortable and strong in the box,” says Saunders, who has three hits and a walk in nine plate appearances during his rehab assignment. “That’s what it’s all about now. Just getting my legs back under me and getting out of spring-training mode… When I get back to Toronto I want to be fully conditioned and fully ready to do whatever they ask. I want to hit the ground running.”
Saunders, who could join the big club as early as this week or next, has passed his time away from the field watching his team’s live boxscores on his phone. He’s liked what he’s seen, especially the way the Blue Jays bounced back from a pair of tough losses to the Yankees and Orioles on their season-opening road trip.
“Any time you go on the road against a division rival, you want to win the series. It’s so important,” Saunders says. “So for them to go take a series off the Yankees and another one off Baltimore, that’s really solid. I think the guys are playing great.
Of course, rehab can be a grind. His knee had responded so well immediately following the surgery that he believed he had a legitimate chance of being ready to play in the majors by opening day. But as April arrived, it became clear that wouldn’t be the case, and Saunders went through a brief period of remorse as he faced the reality of staying in Dunedin while everyone else headed north.
“It was really tough when the guys were packing their bags, getting ready to go to Montreal, and I wasn’t going with,” Saunders says. “That’s been the hardest part for me: not feeling like a part of the team.”
A few Blue Jays have been texting Saunders here and there, asking him how his rehab is going and how his knee is recovering. He feels like it’s kept him connected, and now that he’s playing in actual, live baseball games and approaching the daybreak at the end of the clouds, his spirits are beginning to lift.
“I’m over that hump of feeling down and sorry for myself,” Saunders says. “You really miss the camaraderie and the family aspect of it. Going to battle every single night with your teammates. It’s tough cheering from the couch. So it’s going to be really exciting to get back with the guys soon.”