Saunders, long-shot Marlin, has hometown team in sights Glen Burnie left-hander still can't 'believe I'm here'


September 01, 1997|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

When Tony Saunders went to spring training with the Florida Marlins this year, it wasn't with the intention of making the rotation. All the left-hander was hoping to do was make an impression.

In this case, one thing led to another.

Five years after a timely start for Glen Burnie High School enabled him to sign a free-agent contract, Saunders vaulted over the Triple-A level and landed in the Saunders middle of a pennant race. He'll be on the mound today, as the Marlins' fifth starter, for the interleague-series opener against the Orioles at Pro Player Stadium.

"I still don't believe I'm here. It still hasn't sunk in," he said.

He mingles with some of the higher-priced talent in the majors, in a clubhouse filled with large personalities and larger aspirations. The Marlins signed pitcher Alex Fernandez for a rotation that already included heavyweights Al Leiter and Kevin Brown. They added Bobby Bonilla and Moises Alou to their lineup, heaped riches upon slugger Gary Sheffield, and placed the No. 5 starter's job in the hands of someone who last year was the ace for Double-A Portland.

Saunders, 23, hasn't let it slip through his fingers. All three of his wins this year, against five defeats, have come against the Braves. And his 3.77 ERA and opponents' .227 batting average are proof enough that he's pitched much better than his record indicates.

There was the fly ball that Sheffield lost in the sun, delivering two runs and a loss to San Francisco, and the back-to-back starts when the Marlins were shut out.

Saunders pitched three years at Howard High before transferring to Glen Burnie as a senior, when he was 4-4 with a 2.69 ERA. He wasn't getting much attention until a scout showed up to watch a pitcher on the other team. Saunders threw a shutout and said he later was offered "a thousand dollars and a plane ticket."

He took it. And last season, he was named the organization's Pitcher of the Year at Portland, going 13-4 with a 2.63 ERA, then beat out veterans Rick Helling and Mark Hutton for the last spot in Florida's rotation.

"During spring training, he showed the ability to place his fastball in and out," said pitching coach Larry Rothschild.

"You could see he had the tools to pitch in the major leagues. "And he's very competitive."

Saunders missed seven weeks of this season with a torn tendon in his left knee, suffered shortly before the All-Star break.

"Ever since I've come back from my injury, I've been kind of feeling for it," he said. "Finally, in my last outings, I really had a good feel for what I needed to do out there. It's taken me a while to get things back. It's been up and down."

Three years before, he couldn't have been much lower. Saunders needed reconstructive surgery on his left elbow, costing him most of the 1994 season and the beginning of the next before returning to Single-A Brevard County.

"All I kept telling myself was to give myself every chance to make it and come back," Saunders said. "It was probably the worst pain I'd ever been through, but it's kind of hard not to work when you have the big leagues in front of you."

Pub Date: 9/01/97

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