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March 2, 2012 at 8:10 AM

Michael Saunders to start in center field in today’s Cactus League opener

Michael Saunders has a much better chance of making the Mariners out of spring training today than he did 72 hours ago. The Mariners won’t have Franklin Gutierrez back until May — at the earliest — and need a new center fielder.
We saw Chone Figgins play the position in Wednesday’s intrasquad affair.
But today, it’s Saunders getting the call. Kyle Seager will play third base, with Vinnie Catricala at DH.
Don’t get too excited. It is, after all, a road game against the Oakland Athletics in Phoenix and teams traditionally don’t send veterans off on too many of those when they don’t have to. In the case of Saunders, however, the team needs to figure out in a hurry whether all the progress he appears to be showing with his bat in workouts and intrasquad games will translate into a competitive environment against real opponents.
We’ve told you about how Saunders is using a 60-ounce bat — twice the weight of the one he normally uses in games — in batting practice to help him tighten up his swing. But now, he’s using a bigger one in games as well.
Saunders had been using a C 271 L model. But now, he’s switched to a D 195 L.
“It’s just a bigger head and a longer barrel,” he said. “It’s feeling very comfortable. I’m seeing the ball well. Not only did I work hard on the physical side and the mechanical side, but I also worked hard on the mental side. Just bringing fire and passion to the game, expecting to do damage every time I come to the plate.”

Saunders has done considerable damage in limited intrasquad action.
“I think when you have that kind of attitude, it actually helps you to be more patient, to see the ball better even though you’re hunting the baseball,” he said. “I just came into camp hungry this year. Excited.”
And intrasquad or not, he’s hopeful about the early results. They include going 4-for-7 with a three-run homer, a double and three walks in three intrasquad games.
“A lot of people will say it’s just intrasquad, but at the same time it’s still competition out there,” he said. “Even though it’s really early on, seeing your hard work come into play and having some success is very encouraging. I worked hard this off-season and it’s very encouraging seeing hard work paying off. I know that I’m headed in the right direction. I was searching for answers this off-season and I feel that I’ve found them.
“I’m going to have to continue working hard day in and day out because by no means am I there yet,” he added. “It’s something I’m going to have to work at for years and years.”
Mariners hitting coach Chris Chambliss has had time to observe the newer, tighter approach taken by Saunders, who spent the off-season working with private instructor Mike Bard in Colorado. Chambliss had an idea of what to expect coming into camp, but wanted to see it for himself before making any decisions about it. So far, he likes what Saunders has done and hasn’t suggested any changes.
“I’ve done nothing with him other than what I did last year,” Chambliss said. ‘He’s on a mission in his mind, I think, and he’s come out swinging so far. And that’s kind of what we want to see from him.
“As you know, he can do everything else in this game — baserunning, defense, arm, everything. So, if he can swing the bat, he’s got a chance.”

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