One of the first things Michael Saunders did when he was traded from Seattle to Toronto this off-season was check the schedule for when the Blue Jays visited the Mariners.
“I grew up in that city. I was really looking forward to going back there and playing in front of those fans again,” Saunders says. “I always hated when Toronto came to town because it was like we were playing on the road. It’s a sea of blue but it’s the wrong shade of blue when you’re playing for Seattle. It would’ve been a special weekend for me to go in a Jays uniform. Now, instead, this is definitely going to be my toughest week.”
Michael Saunders has a lot of tough weeks. He’s not in Seattle, obviously, and hasn’t been with the Blue Jays since mid-May when an MRI on his left knee revealed a bone bruise on his tibial plateau, the highest point of his tibia, which had been bumping into the lowest extremity of his femur. His tibia and femur have had to get used to operating in closer proximity after Saunders stepped on a sprinkler head this February and tore his meniscus, requiring him to have 60 percent of the cartilage removed.
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He recovered quickly from that surgery and was playing in games six weeks later, eventually joining the Blue Jays in late April. But just nine games into his first season with Toronto, after trying to play through severe pain in his knee due to the bone bruise, he was shut back down. The Jays said he’d need four to six weeks on the DL.
It’s now been 10. An MRI done in Tampa a month ago showed the bruise had healed significantly, but was still present in the tibial plateau which led to concern that if Saunders began ramping up activity he would quickly undo six weeks of progress. So, the Blue Jays told him to stay off of it for another month.
Those four weeks expired this past Monday, when Saunders went back in for another MRI with Dr. Steve Mirabello, the orthopedic surgeon who removed his meniscus. This scan looked similar to the one a month prior in Tampa. The MRI was still picking up the bruise, but it had moved a little bit further away form the tibial plateau. That was enough progress for Mirabello to give Saunders clearance to begin advancing his rehab.
“We were in stagnant-mode for a while there, but now we’re starting to push forward and implement new exercises,” Saunders says. “My knee is night-and-day better than it was 10 weeks ago.”
For the past four weeks Saunders has been confined to pool workouts, riding an exercise bike and performing isolated exercises with his hamstrings, quads, glutes and calves, while lying on a table with weighted cuffs wrapped around his ankles.
Now he can begin load-bearing and weight-bearing exercises on his feet, such as squats and deadlifts, to see how his knee responds to a bit of pressure and stress. If that goes well he’ll continue to progress what he does on his feet until he’s ready to start performing baseball activities like running and throwing. This week’s progress is encouraging, but there’s still a long road ahead.
“That’s the tough part. We have to wait and see how my knee responds. I wish I could go zero-to-100 and get this thing going and start a rehab assignment tomorrow,” Saunders says. “But I have to remember to throw the brakes on a little bit and make sure I do this properly. We have to recondition my bones where I’m lacking the meniscus. We basically have to get them used to being bone-on-bone. It’ll happen. But it’s not like I can just start sprinting tomorrow. We have to work our way to that point.”
Of course, with just two months and change left in the season, the question remains of whether Saunders will play for the Blue Jays in 2015 at all. He hasn’t run, thrown or hit in two months, and while he’s been able to maintain his conditioning in the pool and on the bike, he would still require a lengthy rehab assignment to regain his timing at the plate before re-joining the team.
As of right now, the Blue Jays haven’t provided Saunders with any kind of timetable. He arrives at the Blue Jays complex in Dunedin for rehab and is re-evaluated every day; Blue Jays doctors examine how his knee has responded to the previous day’s work and, if all is well, they can then push him a little further. But in Saunders’ mind, there’s no doubt he’ll be back with the Blue Jays before October.
“I want to contribute this year. I think it’s definitely very doable and a very good possibility that I’ll be able to contribute before the year’s over,” Saunders says. “That’s the only mindset I can have. As far as I’m concerned, my season’s not over yet.”
Whether Saunders can return to the Blue Jays or not will depend entirely on how his knee responds to each progression in his rehab and whether those steps line up with the ticking clock of the season. Every doctor Saunders has spoken to says this is far from a career-ending injury; with rest and proper rehab Saunders should return to the level he was playing at before it happened. But they’ve also said bone bruises are stubborn, and it may be some time before he’s out of the woods.
For now, Saunders focuses on the day-to-day. The mental grind is as tough as anything, especially with an injury like the one to Saunders’ knee, which doesn’t cause a great deal of discomfort in everyday life but still requires him to stay off of it as much as possible so it can fully heal. It also requires him to be in Dunedin, Fla., thousands of kilometres away from his family and his team.
The 28-year-old arrives at the Blue Jays facility early and hangs around as long as he can, riding the exercise bike and doing anything they’ll let him, before he has to go back to his hotel room and watch TV. He’s been able to go home to Castle Rock, Co. on certain weekends to see his wife, Jessica, and their two young children, which helps reenergize and refresh him.
“It’s been really, really tough on me. It’s been really hard to watch the guys battle out there day in and day out,” Saunders says. “They’re fighting for a playoff spot; they’re right in the mix. I’m sure it’s got to be very exciting for the city of Toronto and I really wish I was a part of that.
“I just have to be mentally strong. It’s easy to give up and concede and do the whole ‘woe is me’ deal and say ‘well, my season’s finished, I’ll go get ‘em next year.’ But that’s not where my mindset is. My mindset is that my season’s not finished. I’m working hard to make sure I come back and hopefully come back at the perfect time and try to help this team in a playoff race.”
And, of course, this weekend will be his hardest yet. Saunders was extraordinarily excited to become a Blue Jay this winter, and even more thrilled to go back to Safeco Field and play against the Mariners. A large contingent of family and friends bought tickets to the series in the off-season, and Saunders has been getting texts all weekend about what a great time they’re having. He wants nothing more than to be there with them. Instead, he’ll be on a trainer’s table.
“I truly believe everything happens for a reason. Sometimes it’s hard to understand why. But I know I’m going to come back strong from this. I keep that in mind. That’s what drives me to keep going. The situation the team’s in drives me to keep going. My wife and kids, they drive me to keep going,” Saunders says. “Unfortunately, missing the Seattle series is a part of it. I’ve accepted that this is where I’m at right now. You can look at this one of two ways: you can either give up or you can keep pushing forward. My season’s not over. I’m pushing to get out of here.”