Felix Hernandez was just about as good as I’ve ever seen him tonight — in the same ballpark as his one-hitter at Fenway in 2007 the night that Dice-K made his Red Sox home debut. In fact, I just saw a tweet that said only five visiting pitchers in history have thrown shutouts at both Fenway and Yankee Stadium. I don’t know if it’s true, but if so, that’s pretty impressive. Don Wakamatsu said Felix might have had the best stuff he’s ever seen him throw tonight, and Joe Girardi said it was the best stuff the Yankees have seen all year.
But we already know Felix was great. Let’s talk about Michael Saunders, who had the first two-homer game of his career and also made a great leaping catch in the first inning or Hernandez would have lost his shutout quickly.
It’s been hard to assess whether or not Saunders is a bona fide blue-chip prospect. Don’t forget, Saunders was ranked No. 30 in Baseball America’s latest top 100 ranking of prospects heading into this season — ahead of some players currently being bandied about in Cliff Lee trade rumors.
He shows flashes of his potential — a great defensive play here, a ringing hit there. Yet his second big-league season has also been marked by flashes of inconsistency. Saunders is hitting just .217 as we speak. His on-base percentage is just .272.
But the last few weeks I’ve been more encouraged that the Mariners might have something here. Saunders had no homers in 129 plate appearances last year, but now has seven in 115 this year. He’s driven in 20 runs, which would put him on a 35-homer, 100-RBI pace if projected for a full season. And he’s shown that he can be a dynamic outfielder.
It takes time to get acclimated to the major leagues. Not everyone comes up fully formed at age 20 like a Jason Heyward. Most players have their ups and downs before finally settling in, and Saunders, at age 23, remains a player of great promise. The Mariners, still 14 games out of first place, should use the remainder of the season to further assess Saunders as an every-day player and let him grew into a polished major leaguer.
“Confidence is the biggest thing,” Wakamatsu said tonight about Saunders’ improvement. “What we’re seeing is whether it’s a cutter at 85 or a good fastball like he turned on at the end, just battling, getting some experience and gaining some confidence is the biggest thing for him.”
Last year, remember, Saunders struggled so badly they shut him down for an extended period to work on his mechanics. Wakamatsu said even then, he envisioned nights like tonight.
“You look at his tools, whether it’s the ability to have range in the outfield and cover a lot of ground, or the leverage that he brings, the rest is just the experience he needs,” he said. “He had a tremendous game, and when you do it in a setting like this, it gives you a belief system that you can do it anywhere.”
Russ Branyan has noticed a change in Saunders since last year.
“He’s inquiring about pitchers, he’s talking about the game, where last year he was just getting his feet wet,” Branyan said. “Last year, he was in the lineup and just playing the game. Now he’s showing his intelligence for the game, trying to learn the pitchers in the league.”
Saunders says knowing he’s playing almost every day has helped.
“Absolutely. That’s the beauty of playing baseball: You know you get to go back out there even if you go 0-for-4. Maybe you have a bad game, but you get to come out again and play tomorrow.
“A lot of people ask me, what was the biggest difference between this callup and last year’s callup,” he said. “This time around, I’m a lot more confident coming in, and I try to not put too much pressure on myself to perform. I try to come out every day I get the opportunity, just play hard and have fun.”
Watching Saunders’ development is going to be one of the most interesting, and important, aspects of the remainder of this season.