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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

August 22, 2012 at 11:00 PM

The bruising tale of Michael Saunders and his first HBP

saundershr.jpg

(Michael Saunders greeted after homering on Sunday — in his next at-bat after getting hit by a pitch for the first time in his career. Photo by Associated Press).

You might have seen the note that Michael Saunders got hit by a pitch for the first time in his major-league career in Sunday’s game against the Twins. That’s after 315 games, and 1,076 plate appearances, without getting plunked.

What you probably don’t know is that I’m to blame. Just ask Saunders. My response is that, really, it’s on Tim Kurkjian of ESPN, as I’ll explain in a moment. But if it’s my fault, at least Saunders doesn’t seem to have been irreparably harmed, because getting that elusive HBP has unleashed his inner Babe Ruth. In his very next at-bat after Samuel Deduno of the Twins hit him in the fifth inning on Sunday, Saunders homered in the seventh inning. The next day, he homered twice against Cleveland. And as I write this, Saunders has already homered in Wednesday’s game against the Indians. That’s four bombs in the span of nine at-bats since the hit-by-pitch monkey was lifted from Saunders’ back (or, in this case, his kneecap).

The story begins on the last Mariners road trip, when I read this outstanding story by Kurkjian on ESPN.com titled, “The horrors of getting by hit by a pitch.” The headline pretty much says it all — it’s the most thorough examination I’ve ever seen on just what it feels like to take a 96 mph heater off a body part. The highest compliment I can give Kurkjian is that my first thought after I finished was, “I wish I had written that.”

Anyway, this paragraph in Kurkjian’s article caught my eye:

And yet, the hit-by-pitch numbers are confusing. Former Braves infielder Mark Lemke holds the major league record for most plate appearances — 3,664 — without getting hit by a pitch. The Mariners’ Michael Saunders is the active player with the most plate appearances without a hit batsman; he’s just over 1,000. Yet Lemke and Saunders were hit plenty of times in the minor leagues.

Huh, I said to myself. That’s interesting about Saunders. Maybe I’ll ask him about it. I kicked that idea around in my head — I knew right away that the mere act of bringing it up might be construed as “jinxing” Saunders, ballplayers being the superstitious people they are. But then I thought, well, I wasn’t the one who brought it up. It was Kurkjian, on one of the most widely read websites on the internet. So I decided to go for it. I approached Saunders in the clubhouse at Camden Yards in Baltimore, and he was quite affable about it, though he did warn me at the end of the interview that if he got hit that night, it was on me. Actually, I took more grief from a couple of my fellow media members who knew what my subject matter was, and were surprised I had the temerity to broach it with Saunders.

When I got back up to the press box, I thought more about it, and ultimately decided not to write anything. It’s not that I didn’t think it was a valid topic, but it occurred to me that by writing specifically about someone not ever having been hit, it sort of put a target on him, and I didn’t want that on my head (or his head). Besides, I had plenty of other fodder for the Mariner notebook that this item would have gone in. So I decided to sit on it. I still have the transcript of our taped interview, however. Here’s what Saunders said, back on Aug.7, about never (at the time) being hit.

“It’s my cat-like reflexes (laughing). I don’t know – I’m knocking on wood right now as we speak. I guess I’ve been lucky. I don’t know what it is. Thank God pitchers have good control.”

I asked him about a pitch at Yankee Stadium a couple of days earlier that had nearly nailed him, but Saunders scooted out of the way.

“That ball was coming in hard, 93 at my kneecaps,” he said “That would have been bad news. I’ll get hit anywhere but the elbow or the knee – or the head, obviously.”

Saunders told me he didn’t realize that he was the active leader in most at-bats without getting hit.

“I don’t know who leading. I know I’ve never gotten hit. It never crossed my mind until you said it. I wouldn’t mind getting hit a little more often to get on base a little more.”

Saunders noted that he had been hit a fair amount of times in the minor leagues – 21 times, it turns out.

“The one that hurts the most was in junior college, and I got hit right on my front knee,” he said. “It locked up completely, and I hobbled to first base. I pride myself on this — I didn’t come out. I was on first, and the guy hit a gap shot, and I had to score. I could barely bend my knee. Luckily, we had a lot of time off to ice. That was the most painful one. He actually threw behind me, and I jumped into it. Natural reaction.”

The pertinent point, emphasized in the Kurkjian story, is that it hurts when you get hit. It hurts like crazy. This was just a few days, mind you, after Brendan Ryan had been hit in his left elbow by the Yankees’ Hiroki Kuroda, knocking him out of several games.

“Look at Brendan,” Saunders said. “He was hit in his elbow and can’t bend it. I’d prefer to get hit in the butt or thigh, or back, or something. When you’re hit in a joint, or the elbow, kneecap, ankle and obviously head, it can really hurt.”

I was a little nervous that Saunders would get hit in the game that night against the Orioles. He wasn’t — but he went 0-for-7 with four strikeouts in a 14-inning loss. Over the next eight games, in fact, Saunders went 2-for-36, a .056 average, with 11 strikeouts. Ouch. But he wasn’t hit by any pitches.

Then, on Saturday against the Twins, Saunders had two hits. And on Sunday, a day off for me, I found myself in the stands at Safeco Field, having taken a visiting cousin and his son to see a game. In the fifth inning, it happened — the wild Deduno, who walked six in six innings, threw a called strike to Saunders, leading off the inning. Then a ball, and then a pitch that nailed Saunders on his leg. I cringed. No one in the stands around me thought much of it, but I instantly bolted up in my seat. I looked at Saunders to see if he was going to point up to the press box or something, but he just got up and trotted to first. I immediately got out my phone and tweeted: “That was the first HBP of Saunders’ MLB career.” A few people wondered how I happened to have that tidbit of trivia on the tip of my brain. Long story, I answered.

After the game, Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN — who was one of the media members who knew about my conversation with Saunders — interviewed him about the HBP. Here is what she wrote on her blog:

Michael Saunders was hit by a pitch for the first time in his major league career Sunday afternoon. Until he was hit by that pitch he was MLB’s active leader in plate appearances without a hit by pitch. That fact was brought to Saunders’ attention by a reporter on the last road trip, much to his chagrin.

“Sure enough, a week later I get hit in the kneecap,” Saunders said. “I really think being hit is overrated, and I wouldn’t recommend it for anybody.”

Superstitious at all, Michael?

“Not necessarily superstitious,” he answered. “I don’t know if it is superstitious in saying that if I think that things like that are brought up that eventually it will happen, so I guess you are kind of superstitious in that sense. I knew once it was brought up it was only a matter of time at that point. I can only get out of the way of so many baseballs before one hits me, and sure enough a week after it was brought to my attention I get hit.

The next day, Shannon sent me a direct message: “Saunders is looking for you and I think you know why.”

Saunders got his shot at me after the Supreme Court game on Tuesday night. Everyone was in a good mood in the clubhouse after their win, including him. He came out shaking his head, but with a big smile.

“Thanks a lot,” he said sarcastically, proceeding to good-naturedly give me the grief I knew was coming. I tried to point out that since he got hit, his slugging percentage has soared, and that I had never actually written a word about it. As Saunders left, he had one parting shot, echoing what he told Drayer.

“Getting hit is overrated.”

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