3/3/2013 3:34 P.M. ET
Saunders encouraged after strong start to spring
By Spencer Fordin / MLB.com
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- If postgame quotes are any indication, Joe Saunders is ready for the season. Seattle's veteran southpaw made his first start of Spring Training on Sunday, and afterward, he responded to an innocent question about whether he's taken a step forward with an All-Star-level quip.
"I don't know if it's a step forward," said Saunders after his two-inning outing. "It's just a step."
Indeed, Saunders did plenty of things right Sunday, but he knows it won't tell him much about his season. The left-hander worked two scoreless innings and allowed just one hit and one walk in Seattle's 7-6 win against Texas, and he said his focus was on throwing strikes and working fast.
"We were working on the slider-cutter combination today," he said. "I threw some good ones and I threw some bad ones but they were down, so that's a positive. Negative for me was the walk. I don't like walking guys, especially left-handed hitters. Other than that, I thought I did pretty well."
Saunders gave up one hard-hit ball on Sunday, but that shot travelled harmlessly foul to right field. The 31-year-old played for two teams last season -- Arizona and Baltimore -- and Seattle will be the fourth team he's played for in the big leagues. Saunders worked seamlessly with catcher Jesus Montero in Sunday's game, and he said he doesn't expect a difficult transition to a new team.
"It's really not as hard as people might think it is," said Saunders of working with a new catcher. "It's nice when people have seen me and I've seen them, and I kind of know what they like and they know what I like. But it's pretty easy, especially in Spring Training, to get on the same page for the season. I thought Monty was great back there. I didn't shake him off once. Working quick and getting after it."
The Mariners staked Saunders to an early four-run lead on Sunday, easing his comfort level. Saunders, a former Angel, went 3-3 with a 3.63 ERA in seven second-half starts for the Orioles last season, and he managed to pitch well in both the Wild Card game and the American League Divisional Series.
Now, with Seattle, he's hoping to help spur a similar renaissance for the Mariners. Saunders said he feels stronger than he has in the past and that he hopes it carries over to the season.
"Every offseason, you try to do something different to prepare," he said. "Try to get in earlier, keep working out strong. I was doing a lot of shoulder program stuff to keep my shoulder strong, and I feel really strong and really healthy. I'm pretty pleased with where my arm is right now."
Felix throws second live batting practice
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Felix Hernandez threw his second live batting practice session on Sunday, effectively removing the only obstacle remaining before he pitches in a Spring Training game. Hernandez, who threw 39 pitches on Sunday, will make his spring debut Thursday.
Hernandez was able to throw all of his pitches on Sunday, and he even spent some time throwing from the stretch. Most of the balls hit were harmless choppers through third base or the infield, but the highlight of the session was a hard liner hit to center field by prospect Gabriel Guerrero.
"It was fine," said Hernandez of his final practice round. "It was different because I had to sit down and come back to throw one more inning. But I felt the same. I feel pretty good."
Hernandez said that his changeup felt good and that his slider was right where he wants to be, and prospect Joe DeCarlo said that his fastball is every bit as good as he expected. DeCarlo, a former second-round draftee, said he was thrilled with the opportunity to stand in the batter's box.
"I'm going to tell all my buddies back home. And my family. I'll remember it for the rest of my career," he said of facing Hernandez. "I was excited. You don't get to do that very often. It's a good experience. I looked forward to that from the moment I heard I was coming in today. It was fun."
Seattle catcher Kelly Shoppach caught for Hernandez during the session, and he said it was a fairly typical performance for a simulated game. Hernandez is still a little inconsistent hitting his spots, said Shoppach, but he's right where he needs to be at this early stage of the spring.
"He's very special because he can throw any of his pitches for strikes," he said. "That often keeps him out of a pattern and keeps hitters off-balance. For me, it gives me an opportunity to be very creative with game-calling, knowing he can do anything. Anything I put down, he can execute it."
Hits coming for Zunino after slow start
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Mike Zunino's hitless spring evaporated on Saturday when Seattle's top hitting prospect broke an 0-for-7 skid with the first home run of his Spring Training career. Zunino, the third overall pick in last year's First-Year Player Draft, delivered a single later in the game, and followed that up with a double in the second inning of Sunday's game against the Rangers.
Zunino, the Golden Spikes Award-winner last year at the University of Florida, had played in five Spring Training games before coming up with his first hit. The catcher has been spending much of his time just settling in and learning pitch sequences, and he was thrilled to finally get on the board.
"I would've taken any hit," he said. "I was feeling good at the plate and I had some good at-bats. It was nice to have my first hit, and to have it be a home run was even better. Once the first one falls, everything else falls into place from there. I'm just trying to keep having a good approach."
Zunino, of course, was still in college at this point last year, and he said his first taste of big league Spring Training has been educational. The young catcher said he's still trying to learn what the pitchers on his staff like to throw, and he's pairing that with learning how to approach the plate as a hitter.
Zunino made it as far as Double-A Jackson last year, batting .333 with three home runs in 15 games. Now that he's in big league camp, he's making sure to soak up every bit of information he can. Veteran catcher Kelly Shoppach, one of Zunino's clubhouse neighbors, has been particularly helpful.
"He definitely offers everything he has to know about the game," said Zunino. "He'll fill you with all the knowledge he has, and I'm grateful for that. Not a lot of people like to share all that information that they've found and has made them successful. It's made me a better ballplayer already."
"There's more than just playing the game," added Shoppach. "When you get around older guys that have put in a lot of work to get to the big leagues and stay in the big leagues as long as they have. Sometimes, it's just as important for off-the-field stuff as on."
• The Mariners set a team record by winning their ninth straight Spring Training game Monday. Seattle's previous best in any single spring was an eight-game streak at the end of the 1993 campaign. Seattle also won six straight to open up '94, giving them 14 straight spread over two seasons. The '93 squad went 82-80 while the '94 team finished 49-63.
"We've got a good group of guys. They do a good job of taking care of each other," Wedge said. "It's been a good working camp and guys are getting better."
• Monday's game against the Rockies will be the first of six games televised this spring for the Mariners. After Monday, the next televised game will be on March 17.
• Jon Garland will start for the Mariners on Monday, and he'll be followed by a trio of intriguing arms: Starting prospects Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker and closer Tom Wilhelmsen.
• The Mariners hit their 21st and 22nd home run of the spring Sunday, a total that leads all big league teams. Kendrys Morales hit the first homer, a two-run shot to straightaway center field at Surprise Stadium. Jesus Montero followed, driving a two-run blast off Russ Grimm in the third inning.
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.