BY John Hickey 06:00PM 05/19/2011

Hickey: Ichiro likes Saunders’ smarts

Star praises Saunders for handling the play Angels’ Gold Glove CF Hunter couldn’t, making the difference in a Mariners victory.

Michael Saunders - Seattle Mariners - 2010 - 1

Michael Saunders smart defense gets approval from Ichiro Suzuki / Ben Van Houten, Mariners

Michael Saunders proved something to Ichiro Suzuki  Thursday afternoon.

And for one day, at least, Saunders was the equal in center field of the Angels’ Torii Hunter.

On two otherwise routine fly balls hit to center field, Saunders caught the one hit to him and Hunter couldn’t catch a virtual duplicate. Those plays were the difference in Thursday’s game, a 2-1 Mariner win over the Angels.

With the game tied at 1 in the top of the ninth, the Angels’ Alberto Callaspo challenged Saunders with a towering fly ball that, from Saunders’ angle in center field, was in the sun. The second-year outfielder danced left, then right, then left again and finally made the catch.

To the bottom of the ninth. With two out and men on first and third, the Mariners’ Carlos Peguero hit a high fly similar to Callaspo’s ball. This time, however, Hunter wasn’t able to track the ball at all. It fell untouched for a game-winning single.

“From my angle (in right field) it’s fun to watch (Saunders’ play),’’ Ichiro said after the game. “He was fighting and he wasn’t giving up. And it proved that he’s a smart ballplayer.

“To even have a chance to make that play, you’ve got to imagine it before it happens. You’ve got to position yourself in your mind so that when it happens, you’re ready. He did that. To me, that play proves that Saunders is a smart player.’’

Not surprisingly, Saunders lit up when he heard what his teammate said.

“Ichiro is one of the all-time greats, so it’s great to hear that from him,’’ Saunders said. “You do have to visualize before, sort of pre-prepare, because the late afternoon sun (in Safeco Field) can be tough. You’ve got to give yourself a chance to be ready for the ball to come out of the sun while you still have a chance to catch it.’’

Saunders didn’t look elegant, to be sure. Afterward he said he danced “OK for a white guy,’’ and added later that maybe he could use video of the play as an audition for “Dancing With The Stars.’’

Hunter didn’t look elegant, either. But it’s been said of the nine-time Gold Glove winner that if he can’t catch a ball, it can’t be caught. Just two innings earlier, Hunter showed off all of his skill in stealing a double or triple from Peguero at the center field wall with a hard  running catch.

In the ninth inning on Peguero’s next offering, “You can’t catch what you can’t see,’’ Hunter said in the gloom of an Angels clubhouse that has hit rock bottom. The Angels have lost five games in succession and seven of their last eight.

Ichiro said he knows what Hunter was feeling. Although during his time as the Mariner center fielder, he never had a ball drop like that, “It can be very tough to catch some of those,’’ the outfielder said. May 1 in Boston, Ichiro had an otherwise routine ball off the bat of the Red Sox’ Jed Lowrie get caught in the sun in right field in Fenway Park for a triple, leading to the deciding run in a 3-2 Seattle loss.

“I know what he (Hunter) is feeling,’’ Ichiro said. “He had the same play as Saunders, but for him the ball never came out of the sun. You’re trying to win each game, and when that play happens in the ninth inning, there’s no worse feeling.’’

Wedge described Hunter as “arguably one of the best outfielders of his generation,’’ but said that at “certain times of the day and certain times of the year’’ there’s nothing you can do.

“We put ourselves in position to win the game,’’ Wedge said. “I can’t say it better – you have to find a way to win games like this. And the more you experience this, the better are your chances to win.’’

Cust said he never expected to score the tying run, assuming that Hunter would make the catch and force extra innings. Cust stepped on home plate as a matter of course, then when he saw the ball reach the earth, the DH did an about-face.

“I went back and made sure I touched the plate again,’’ he said. “It was a lucky ball for us and a tough sun for them. It’s nice to get a break.’’

Twitter:@JHickey3


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