(Michael Saunders trots around the bases after homering earlier this spring. Photo by Associated Press)
The Mariners will have a defection of sorts after this weekend when three of its players in major-league camp leave to get ready for the World Baseball Classic. And it so happens that all three are in the same bracket with different teams — Michael Saunders with Canada, Oliver Perez with Mexico and Alex Liddi with Italy.
The fourth team in that pool, which plays at Chase Field in Phoenix beginning March 7, is the United States. Mexico plays the US on March 8, Italy plays the US on March 9, and Canada vs. US is March 10. Mexico faces Italy on March 7, and Mexico and Canada square off on March 9.
Saunders is a veteran of Team Canada, having represented his country at the Little League World Series in 1999 and the Olympics in 2008, as well as several appearances on their Junior National Team as a teenager, and a couple of World Cups after he turned pro. This will be his first WBC stint with Canada, which is strong in position players with Saunders, Joey Votto, Justin Morneau and Brett Lawrie, among others, but doesn’t have much experienced pitching.
“On paper, we can compete, no question,” Saunders said. “We definitely bring a lot of pride to it. We’re not here to get our work in. We’re here to win. We have a lot of fun doing it, at least my previous experiences. Canadian baseball is a tight-knit fraternity. It’s like you go away for a few years and come back, and you haven’t missed a step. I’m really looking forward to it, and you take a look at our team on paper, we can compete with anyone.”
Most of the well-known Canadian pitchers, like Ryan Dempster, Erik Bedard, Scott Diamond, Jeff Francis and Rich Harden, are sitting out the WBC.
“We’re missing our well known names, but we have a lot of guys coming up from the upper minors and Japan who have had a taste of big league experience,” Saunders said. “They’re very capable.”
Team Canada has had a touch of controversy, with Justin Morneau criticizing Pirates catcher Russell Martin for pulling out of the event. Martin had wanted to play shortstop, and when they said no, he decided against participating.
On that topic, Saunders said, “I’m going to kind of stay out of it,” but added: “You’ve got to look out for yourself, yeah. But at the same time, though, you get an opportunity to play for your country, myself, I’m not going to take that for granted. It’s a privilege to play for your country. If I’m a center fielder, I’m going to be playing center field. If someone’s a first baseman, they’re going to be playing first base. Obviously, catching a little more tougher at this point. It was his decision to make. We could really use him, though.”
Saunders admitted that when he first heard Martin wanted to play shortstop, “I thought it was a joke. It turned out he was serious. From what I hear, he can pick it. He messes around and takes ground balls at shortstop during the season. He’s a hell of an athlete. It wouldn’t surprise me if he could play there. If you get a chance to play for your country, it’s not something I would take lightly.”
This will be the third WBC for Perez, one of four Mexican players to participate in all three. The others are Adrian Gonzalez, Jorge Cantu and Karim Garcia. Perez made his mark in 2006, when he out-pitched Roger Clemens as Mexico eliminated the US with a 2-1 win.
“That was a very special moment,” he said.
Liddi also represented Italy in 2009, and drove in two runs in their upset victory over Canada.
“They were a good team with a couple of stars,” Liddi said. “That was a highlight.”