Saunders and Smoak have been through it all together

By: Bob Elliott

Canadian Baseball Network

They were locker mates at Safeco Field as early as 2010.

They sit near other nightly at the Rogers Centre before and after home games.

They were born in 1986, 17 days apart.

And in the revamped, new-look Blue Jays lineup they hit back-to-back the first two games of the weekend series  against the Minnesota Twins. 

Unwanted in the Seattle Mariners lineup Justin Smoak and Michael Saunders are key contributors to what remains of the most dominant offences in baseball.

Saunders was promoted from triple-A Tacoma to Seattle making his debut against the Cleveland Indians on July 25, 2009.

Smoak arrived from the Texas Rangers as the key addition in the six-player Cliff Lee trade July 9, 2010.

“We both went through the prospect stage together,” said Saunders Sunday morn in the Blue Jays clubhouse at Target Field.

And at the end of the 2014 season the Mariners brain trust of general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Lloyd McClendon had seen enough of both first baseman Smoak and outfielder Saunders.

Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos signed free agent Smoak Dec. 3, 2014, a day after he was granted free agency.

Blue Jays trainer Mike Frostad drove Smoak to Pearson International after completing his physical when Smoak’s phone rang.

“It was Alex, he wanted me to tell him what kind of guy Michael Saunders was, what Michael Saunders’ work habits were, what kind of a teammate Michael Saunders was,” Smoak recalled. “A few hours later Michael Saunders was a Blue Jay.”

Anthopoulos dealt lefty J.A. Happ to Seattle for Saunders.

And the S and S boys, one a left-handed hitter from Victoria, B.C. the other a switch hitter from Goose Creek, S.C. were re-united again.

The Mariners won 87 games in 2014 and one Seattle scribe predicted that the Jays, coming off an 83-win season would sink below .500 by adding two of the Mariners least productive pieces.

“I’ve been trying to get away from him for years and here we were together again,” Saunders said jokingly. “With Seattle we were both young guys, the team was in the building process and we were both considered prospects. “We’ve become very close. Our wives are close. We became close dealing with adversity, both on and off the field experiences.” 

Jessica Saunders and Kristin Smoak are friends and as a group the foursome went through a lot in 2011.

Smoak lost his father Keith to cancer in April of 2011, while Saunders lost his mother Jane after a courageous battle with breast cancer two months later.

The last-place Jays have big boppers in two-time former American League home run champ Jose Bautista and reigning MVP Josh Donaldson, yet the best numbers belong to Saunders if you go by OPS. He owns a .958 mark to go with a .322 average, eight homers and 125 RBIs in 39 games.

Next are Bautista (.870) and Donaldson (.866), then Smoak, who has an .829 mark followed by Edwin Encarnacion (.755). Smoak is batting ,284 with five doubles, three homers and 11 RBIs in 42 games.

Smoak is now the Jays every day first baseman with Chris Colabello suspended for 80 days, while Saunders is the every day left fielder, after starting nine games last year due to stepping on a sprinkler head at the Bobby Mattick Center in Dunedin.

Saunders on Smoak: “Justin went from being one of the best prospects in the game to having moments of failure like we all do. What’s so impressive is the way he dealt with it. It’s good to see him getting an opportunity to play on a regular basis and to do well.”

Smoak on Saunders: “The amazing thing to me is that he basically missed all of last year, but he’s hitting so well, like he played the whole season.”

Why is Saunders doing so well when he missed so much time?

An MMA fan, Saunders watched a fighter come back from a long layoff, win and in his post-fight interview after a won said “rust is a lack of perpetration.”

“That stuck with me,” said Saunders, who had work to do rehabbing his knee as well as getting his swing back into shape after only 31 at-bats in 2015.

He worked out at The Tank indoor facility run by his good pal Jason Bates, former Colorado Rockies infielder near his off season home in Castle Rock, Col.              

Saunders, signed by Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Wayne Norton (Port Moody, BC) takes a 10-game road hitting streak into Yankee Stadium -- where his former GM Zduriencik predicted Saunders could be a 30-homer guy some day -- Tuesday night in the opener of a three-game series against the New York Yankees. On the road he’s 32-for-his-last 88 (.364). He had two hits Sunday and now has reached in 21 of his last 22 games. He has hit in 16 consecutive against Minnesota batting .336 (37-for-110).

The S and S boys hit the big city as the Jays try to escape the basement.