PHOENIX -- Representing his country in the World Baseball Classic meant so much to Michael Saunders that he hardly smiled when he was named Most Valuable Player.
Saunders, the young outfielder for the Seattle Mariners and Team Canada this week during first-round Pool D play at Chase Field, was smarting from the fresh wound of his club being knocked out of the tournament in a 9-4 loss to the United States on Sunday afternoon, after all.
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So while he might have been proud of his personal performance, he had his mind on bigger things. Team things.
"It's definitely an honor," Saunders said after receiving the trophy from former Major League manager Tony La Russa and players union representative Tony Clark. "However, it's kind of a sour taste in my mouth right now. Whenever you represent your country, it really doesn't matter how you do, as long as you win."
Team Canada might not have won, but Saunders the individual was simply stunning over the course of the three games. He batted .727 (8-for-11), drove in seven runs, hit three doubles and a home run, which came Sunday afternoon off Team USA left-hander Derek Holland and gave his team a brief 2-0 lead, and scored four runs. He stole a base. He drew two walks. He even bunted for a single on Sunday.
It was a complete performance for a 6-foot-4, 215-pound 26-year-old with speed and power who began breaking out as an everyday player for Seattle last year and figures strongly into the Mariners' plans in 2013. In fact, on a team with former American and National League MVPs Justin Morneau and Joey Votto in his own Canadian lineup, it was Saunders who left the most lasting impression.
"He's a very talented man that probably doesn't get the recognition that he deserves," Team Canada manager Ernie Whitt said. "Playing in Seattle, they just don't have the media coverage. But just a tremendous up and coming outfielder that's going to be a superstar."
His progress from 2011 to 2012 was a leap in the right direction. Saunders worked with hitting coach Mike Bard, the brother of former big league catcher Josh Bard, in the offseason of 2011 in Colorado to shorten his swing. He took a new approach and newfound confidence into 2012 and played his way into the lineup, hitting 19 home runs and stealing 21 bases in a career-high 507 at-bats.
There's still work to do. Saunders struck out too much -- 132 times, compared to 43 walks. He batted .247 and had an on-base percentage of .306. He knows he has to improve in those areas. But he also knows that he's going to be starting in the Mariners' outfield every day and hitting in the lineup every day. That's a first in his career since he was selected by Seattle in the 11th round of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft.
And now the world knows how he handles playoff-like pressure. Not only was Saunders soaking in his first Classic, after missing out on the opportunity in 2009 because of an injury, but he was thrust into the heart of the batting order after third baseman Brett Lawrie went down with a strained rib cage days before Team Canada's Pool D opener against Italy last Thursday.
"He's improved each year," said Team USA outfielder Adam Jones, who was in the Mariners' Minor League system with Saunders until being traded to Baltimore prior to the 2009 season. "He's a big kid. We joked before the game that he's the smallest Canadian on the team. And he's just he's improved. He's got a great opportunity for the Mariners right now."
Saunders said he will get right back to that opportunity on Monday, when he'll rejoin his team at its Spring Training complex in nearby Peoria, Ariz. He said he's ready to get right back into a game. He also said he'll cherish the time he spent with a team made up of players he's known or idolized over the course of his development as a kid from Victoria, British Columbia, who always dreamed of being in the big leagues.
"Canadians and baseball, I always describe it as a tight fraternity," Saunders said. "We may go our separate ways for a few years, but when we come back it's like we haven't skipped a beat. It's going to be tough to leave these guys. We have a lot of fun playing the game, we play hard, we play it the right way.
"But I am looking forward to getting back into the clubhouse in Seattle and continuing to try to learn, and now my focus is with the Mariners and helping the Mariners win ballgames."
Saunders might be leaving the World Baseball Classic stage, but his presence won't soon be forgotten.
"He blew me away," said Team Canada's Sunday starter, Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon. "Seriously. Sitting back and watching him play was incredible. … He can do it all.
"Seriously, he was fun to watch."