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Monday, March 4, 2013 - Page updated at 09:00 p.m.
Three Mariners begin preparations for World Baseball Classic
By Larry Stone
Seattle Times staff reporter
PEORIA, Ariz. — For three Mariners, spring training is about to take an international detour.
Outfielder Michael Saunders, infielder Alex Liddi and reliever Oliver Perez vacated Mariners' camp Sunday to join their respective homelands in preparation for the World Baseball Classic.
Fortuitously, none will have far to go, however.
Saunders will play for Team Canada, which trains at the Reds' facility in Goodyear. Liddi is with Italy, which is in Phoenix at the Oakland A's complex. And Perez's Mexican team will work out at Salt River Fields, the Diamondbacks' facility in Scottsdale.
The three squads happen to all be in the same pool, along with Team USA, for a Round Robin that commences Thursday and will be contested at Salt River Fields as well as Chase Field in Phoenix. The top two teams advance to the second round in Miami. The players could be gone as long as March 19, when the championship game is played in San Francisco.
It's an odd time to be leaving behind their Seattle teammates, but all three players are excited to be playing for their countries. Felix Hernandez pulled out of Team Venezuela shortly after agreeing to his $175 million contract extension.
"Every time you wear your color for your country, that's pretty special," said Perez. "That's where you come from. All your family and friends, all the Mexican people, they're very excited about this tournament."
Perez, who was born in Culican, Mexican, also expects rousing support from Phoenix's large Hispanic community.
"It's like you're playing in Mexico here because there are a lot of Mexicans," he said.
Perez is one of four players to represent Mexico in all three WBCs, along with Adrian Gonzalez, Jorge Cantu and Karim Garcia. He was involved in one of their enduring highlights, outpitching Roger Clemens in a 2-1 Mexico win in 2006 that knocked out Team USA.
"That was a very special moment," Perez said. "I knew I was facing Clemens, facing USA. It was one of those moments you'll never forget, because you see all the players you're facing, like Ken Griffey, Derek Jeter. A lot of really good players. That shows you anything can happen in any game. We didn't have a lot of names like USA did, but if you play hard, you have an opportunity to win."
Saunders has never played with Canada in the WBC, but has extensive experience representing his country, dating to the Little League World Series as a 12-year-old in 1999. He was on Team Canada in the Olympics in 2008, as well as making several appearances on their Junior National Team as a teenager, and a couple of World Cups after he turned pro.
This Canadian team is strong in position players with Saunders, Joey Votto, Justin Morneau and Brett Lawrie, among others, but doesn't have much experienced pitching.
"On paper, we can compete, no question," Saunders said. "We definitely bring a lot of pride to it. We're not here to get our work in. We're here to win. We have a lot of fun doing it, at least my previous experiences. Canadian baseball is a tight-knit fraternity. It's like you go away for a few years and come back, and you haven't missed a step. I'm really looking forward to it, and you take a look at our team on paper, we can compete with anyone."
Most of the well-known Canadian pitchers, like Ryan Dempster, Erik Bedard, Scott Diamond, Jeff Francis and Rich Harden, are sitting out the WBC.
"We're missing our well known names, but we have a lot of guys coming up from the upper minors and Japan who have had a taste of big league experience," Saunders said. "They're very capable."
Team Canada has had a touch of controversy, with Justin Morneau criticizing Pirates catcher Russell Martin for pulling out of the event. Martin had wanted to play shortstop, and when they said no, he decided against participating.
On that topic, Saunders said, "I'm going to kind of stay out of it," but added: "You've got to look out for yourself, yeah. But at the same time, though, you get an opportunity to play for your country, myself, I'm not going to take that for granted. It's a privilege to play for your country.
"If I'm a center fielder, I'm going to be playing center field. If someone's a first baseman, they're going to be playing first base. Obviously, catching is a little tougher at this point. It was his decision to make. We could really use him, though."
Saunders admitted that when he first heard Martin wanted to play shortstop, "I thought it was a joke. It turned out he was serious. From what I hear, he can pick it. He messes around and takes ground balls at shortstop during the season. He's a hell of an athlete. It wouldn't surprise me if he could play there.
"If you get a chance to play for your country, it's not something I would take lightly."
The absence from camp won't hurt Saunders in the sense he has a spot in the Mariners' lineup assured, though he doesn't look at it that way. He disagreed with the notion he isn't fighting for a job.
"Yes I am. Yes I am," he said. "Comfort is for retirement. I've never arrived. After a long, successful career one day, hopefully, I'll consider myself that I've arrived and now I'm comfortable. Until then, I'm always battling for a job. That's the way I've got to look at it.
"I've been down and out and I never want to experience that again. I'm playing with a chip on my shoulder. I always have something to prove. There's always someone who wants your job."
Liddi, making his second appearance with Italy, is an extreme longshot to make the Mariners' roster. He's not helping his chances: After an 0 for 5 on Sunday, he's hitting .100 (2 for 20).
But the native of Sanremo, Italy, is the face of Italian baseball as the first native-born and developed player in the major leagues. Liddi's big WBC moment came when he drove in two runs in their upset victory over Canada in 2009.
"They were a good team with a couple of stars," Liddi said. "That was a highlight."
Italy debuts Thursday against Perez's Mexican team. Canada plays Italy on Friday, while Mexico faces the United States. On Saturday, it's Canada against Mexico and the U.S. vs. Italy. The U.S. and Canada face off on Sunday.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © The Seattle Times Company
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