ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Michael Saunders returned to the Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday and immediately found a place in Canadian baseball lore by being part of the first major-league lineup to ever feature three position players from north of the border.
The 28-year-old, back from a meniscus tear in his left knee suffered in February, joined fellow outfielder Dalton Pompey and catcher Russell Martin in making a small piece of history. Big-league lineups have featured three Canadians on three previous occasions, but each time it’s been two position players and a starting pitcher, most recently Aug. 26, 2011 when the Minnesota Twins featured Justin Morneau, Rene Tosoni and Scott Diamond.
Sportsnet The Fan 590 broadcaster Joe Siddall was a part of the other two occasions with Larry Walker and Denis Boucher on the Montreal Expos in 1993.
"It’s pretty special," said Saunders. "Not only that, but to represent Canada’s team is pretty special, too, it’s pretty amazing how that has coincided with one another.
"It just goes to show that baseball is starting to evolve in Canada. At first it was led by guys that I grew up watching, the Walkers, the Dempsters, Jeff Francis, who is a teammate now, as well. Morneau, (Joey) Votto, so on and so forth. Now you see the next generation coming with Pompey and those guys, it’s pretty special and I think it’s going to continue to evolve."
Even without the milestone, making his Blue Jays debut was going to be special for Saunders, acquired from the Seattle Mariners during the off-season for J.A. Happ. A left-handed hitter with some pop and speed, he was expected to be a key part of a right-handed heavy lineup.
A soft spot on a spring training practice field caused his injury, landing him on an operating table, and now after a nine-game rehab stint at single-A Dunedin, his game is where he wants it to be.
"I wouldn’t be here right now if I wasn’t ready to go," he says. "I’ve played five or six games in the outfield in a row now and my legs feel good. I said earlier in spring training that I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t ready to go because it wouldn’t be fair to me or the guys to just come up here and still be in spring mode. …
"It has been a long road," he added later. "Emotional and physical roller coaster but I’m definitely ready. At the time it’s kind of tough but definitely beneficial to spend an extra week playing some games, getting my legs underneath me, so when I finally got here, be able to hit the ground running and hopefully never look back. I feel ready, I feel strong, I’ve played four or five games in the outfield now so I feel my spring legs are behind me. And I’ve said this since Day 1, nobody is more excited than me to be here."
Saunders slashed .273/.341/.450 last year for the Mariners and the Blue Jays believe he’ll be even more productive in their lineup and in the smaller parks of the AL East.
He’ll start off wearing a stability brace on his knee that he plans to wean off, and at long last start to enjoy a season he’s been so looking forward to.
"I’m not looking at this as I’ve missed so many games, I’m looking at this as it’s my opener," said Saunders. "What happened, happened, it’s out of my control and I just have to try and deal with it the best way I can. I’m here now, I’m here today and I’m here to do my best to help this club win ballgames."