AquaSox Notebook: Northwest Native Providing Power

EVERETT, Wash. - It's not as if being a Northwest native is a prerequisite to joining the ranks of the Seattle Mariners organization, but fans seem to hold local talent in a different regard than the rest. One AquaSox outfielder has already learned that in his first month with the team.

First baseman Richie Sexson enjoyed a warm reception from the Seattle faithful in this, his first season in Mariners' blue, not only for the power-hitting capabilities he carried with him, but also for the homegrown feel he brought to the club. Former first baseman John Olerud may have attributed the length of his tenure with the M's to the popularity he enjoyed due to his local ties. Now, the Mariners have their eye on another Northwest original - AquaSox outfielder Michael Saunders.

Saunders hails from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, a place a little further north than his big-league counterparts. There, in a country best known for breeding hockey players, the young lefty found himself drawn to the Great American Pastime and the club most geographically accessible to him.

"I've been a Mariners fan ever since I was little," Saunders says, "and it's pretty sweet now to be playing in their system."

Saunders became an athlete at a young age at the insistence of his father, who Saunders says, "Wanted me to play a lot of sports." Saunders did just that, picking up soccer, hockey, lacrosse, volleyball and basketball over the course of his youth. It became clear that he was best suited for baseball when, at the age of 16, he was selected to play for the Canadian National Baseball Team.

"Every year Canada has the Canada Cup, which is a nationwide tournament," Saunders said. "Every province enters a team and the head coach and manager [of the National Team] pick 30 guys to bring down to a training camp in Orlando, Florida. After that, you get a callback to go somewhere in South America and pretty much from there, you're on the team."

Saunders was one of the youngest of the Canadian National players, but it was a role that he had long grown accustomed to.

"I guess all throughout my career I've always been one of the youngest if not the youngest," he says.

Nevertheless, Saunders is developing quickly into a solid outfielder and power hitter. He's become one of the reliable cogs in an Everett offense that has proved dominant since the beginning of the season. Saunders attributes much of his success to his time spent with his countrymen.

"[Playing for the Canadian National team] was the best baseball I've played up until this point [in Everett]," he said. "It's just a whole different atmosphere and they way that they play it is very unique."

Despite the prowess Saunders showed on the hill and in the six-spot for Canada, the Mariners felt that his true strengths were at the plate and in the outfield grass. When they made him an 11th round draft pick in 2004, Saunders reported to Tallahassee Community College in Florida and prepared for a new direction in his career.

"I'll always look back on the positions I used to play," he says, "But I think it was about time to find a position at which to pursue my career. I think I had a better chance if I just concentrated on one. Seattle liked me as a hitter, so I decided in college to stop pitching."

Saunders seems to have grown to love the role, content to stay in the outfield and hone his new craft.

"As long as I'm on the field I'm happy," Saunders said.

He also seems satisfied in his current area code and looks forward to playing for the team that he grew up watching.

"I like it here a lot," he said. "[Seattle] is just like home and it helps me with my transition and makes me a lot more comfortable."

Don't Blame Canada - Pitching and Defense Fall Apart in Vancouver: The AquaSox dropped their second series of the year during a trip to the Great White North last week. The Vancouver Canadians continued their dominance over the NWL West Division, taking two out of three games against Everett. The losses were punctuated by shoddy defense and pitching on behalf of the Sox.

Wednesday's series opener was Everett's first extra-innings game of the year, but the work proved fruitless as Vancouver took the game, 7-6, in 13 innings. Looking to close out the game in the 12th with a 6-5 lead, pitcher Rollie Gibson was taken yard for the first time this year, tying the game at six. Gibson finished the inning and continued pitching into the 13th, when he committed the most grievous pitching sin of all by walking in the winning run.

A solid outing by Justin Thomas went to waste on Friday, as Vancouver beat Everett, 4-2. Thomas went 6.2 innings, giving up six hits and no runs, while recording five strikeouts. The Canadians took advantage of Everett's five errors, however, scoring two unearned runs with Thomas on the hill before picking up the win in the eighth on a wild pitch by Edgar Guaramato that scored two more.

Everett skipper Pedro Grifol downplayed the Sox struggles, saying, "We have guys that can play good defense, but sometime errors happen in this game. We have a lot of guys who are moving around to positions they've never played before. We ask a lot of those guys and they're working hard."

Speaking of hard work, pitcher Nick Allen became the Northwest League's first four-game winner as the Sox picked up their only "W" of the series on Thursday with a 7-5 victory over Vancouver. Allen is now 4-0 in six games with a 3.19 ERA. He has logged more innings than any other AquaSox pitcher (31) and is currently holding onto an attractive 15:2 K-to-BB ratio.

Alex Gary carried Everett's offense in the win going 2-for-4 with two RBI, a double, and a run scored.

Valbuena Disappears, then Bounces Back Big: Second baseman Luis Valbuena was taken out of the lineup in Saturday's series opener against Spokane after only one inning. Pedro Grifol declined to comment on the move.

"That's something we'll keep internal and he'll be back out there [on Sunday]," said Grifol. albuena's absence didn't prevent the AquaSox from winning, 4-2.

He returned Sunday to contribute a double and a home run while going 2-for-5 with two RBI, a walk and three runs scored in Everett's 13-5 routing of the Indians.

Craig Staying Put: Despite Casey Craig's recent offensive and power-hitting explosion (three home runs in the last two weeks), Grifol says that he'll remain, for the most part, in the leadoff position.

"Casey has a lot of tools—he's got some power, he can run—he gives us a lot of options as to where we can put him in the lineup, but right now, he's our leadoff hitter," said the AquaSox third-year manager.

Craig's season has been nothing short of stellar. As of the 19th, he's hitting .363/.437/.593 in 23 games with four home runs and 14 RBI. He has 11 extra base hits on the season, has touched home 25 times, and has 54 total bases to his credit. It almost seems as if the Mariners are ignoring him, as he's been deserving of a promotion to a full-season club for weeks. He's outgrowing his surroundings in more ways than one—his last two home runs have traveled out of Everett Memorial Stadium.

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