PITTSBURGH — Michael Saunders makes a difference to the Mariners every day.
Wednesday’s 2-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park was a prime example how he has helped since his April 29 return from the disabled list.
Saunders manufactured Seattle’s first run without benefit of a hit. With Pirates starter A.J. Burnett perfect after three innings, Saunders broke the string with a leadoff walk in the fourth.
Once on first, Saunders’ base-stealing potential seemed to bother Burnett, who lost his rhythm while constantly giving Saunders second looks. He uncorked a wild pitch that allowed Saunders to take second and later walked Jason Bay.
Both moved up when Kendrys Morales grounded out to first. Saunders scored moments later on Burnett’s second wild pitch.
“He just brings energy when he’s on base,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said.
That’s how Saunders plays. He’s not the team’s fastest runner, but he might be the smartest, most aggressive and easily the most successful.
“Every game, I’m looking to take the extra bases whenever I can,” Saunders said. “I’m looking to turn walks and singles into doubles. I feel that’s really the only way to play this game. You get better reads on balls in the dirt if you’re aggressive and looking for those. I’m always looking for the extra base.”
Saunders is getting on base more and more. He had a career high three walks Wednesday, two issued by Burnett, to push his on-base percentage to .362.
“After my first at-bat, I was looking for a fastball right down the middle,” he said. “His stuff moves all over the place. He throws everything hard. Honestly, my approach was a fastball right down the middle. I was able to battle on the pitches I needed to. … He’s got power stuff, so I tried to zone him up right down the middle of the plate.”
Wedge would like to see others do the same.
“What we need to continue to do is if they are not coming into to you, you need to lay your bat down and go to first base and give the next guy a turn,” he said. “I think it’s especially true for (Kendrys) Morales and (Michael) Morse.
“These are guys in the middle of our lineup and sometimes their hearts get in the way. They want to do it so much and they know they need to do it, and they come out of the strike zone a little bit. Once they start to reel that in and allow themselves to lay the bat down and leave it to the next guy that’s going to help them and help us so much, too.”
After his second walk, Saunders easily stole second against Burnett and catcher Michael McKenry. It was his sixth stolen base in six tries this season.
“Some guys are tough to run on and some guys are easier,” Saunders said. “A lot of study goes into it, a lot of hard work. I credit Brum (first base coach Mike Brumley) with a lot of it. He’s helped me out so much the last couple of years. I take a lot of pride in my base running, trying to look for the edge every time. I’m confident I can get the extra base, and I’m always looking for it.”
That’s what Wedge loves about Saunders.
“He’s out there hunting it,” Wedge said. “That’s the way he plays the game. He’s hunting the ball at home plate. He’s hunting the bag when he’s on the bases and he’s hunting the ball in center field. That’s one of the reasons he has a chance to be a really special player in time.”
Ace pitcher Felix Hernandez, in seven starts this season with Jesus Montero catching him, has a 1.03 earned run average. In 13 career starts with Montero as his catcher, Hernandez has a 1.84 ERA. … It was the 24th time the Mariners won a game with three or fewer hits, and four of the past five have come with Hernandez pitching. … Tom Wilhelmsen is nine-for-nine in save opportunities. His ERA is 0.60.
The Mariners have Thursday off before returning to action Friday at Safeco Field, when they begin a three-game series with the Oakland A’s.