Joe Saunders was not the most likely candidate to start the 2012 American League Wild Card Game for the Baltimore Orioles. He was 9-13 with a combined 4.07 ERA between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Orioles that season. But it proved to be the most meaningful moment of a 10-year career that included multiple trips to the postseason.
“Honestly, it’s got to be [at the] top of the list,” Saunders said in an interview on Glenn Clark Radio Oct. 4. “It was an amazing night, and it was pretty special being traded over to my hometown team and then getting the opportunity to pitch in that game — for [Orioles manager] Buck [Showalter] to have the confidence in me to go out there and do the job.”
The Northern Virginia native was excellent that night, allowing one run through 5.2 innings, as the Orioles beat the Rangers, 5-1. Now, as the Birds prepare to face the Blue Jays in their second Wild Card Game Oct. 4, Saunders has an idea of what kind of nerves Orioles starting pitcher Chris Tillman must be experiencing. He went through an emotional whirlwind before starting the one-game playoff.
“It’s a little bit of a blur,” Saunders said. “I remember being really, really nervous. For the PG version, for you guys — nervous as hell. Me and Tillman were in similar spots. Tillman, I don’t think, has very good numbers in Toronto. I had terrible numbers entering that Texas game in Arlington. It was pressure packed. That’s kind of what you live for, and that’s what you really almost play for. I remember just going out there and telling myself, ‘Hey, go out there and give it everything you have on every pitch. Whatever happens is going to happen, but as long as you give it, literally, everything that you have in your body, then everything is going to work out.'”
Saunders was asked what type of advice he might offer Tillman about how to handle the pressure and admitted there is no easy answer.
“It’s tough,” Saunders said. “You want to tell him to be yourself, don’t really change anything, but it’s impossible. It’s humanly impossible, honestly, to go out there and say, ‘It’s just another game.’ Because it’s not, you know? It’s pretty much do-or-die. What I would tell him is just don’t even think about it before the game. And then once you get out there, man, just — you’ve pitched against these guys, try to remember the success you’ve had on different pitches with different hitters and just go out there and literally give it everything you’ve got.”
Of course, everything worked out well for Saunders. He remains an Orioles fan and said he’ll be watching their game in Toronto. He also gained a level of folk hero status for delivering the O’s their first playoff victory in 15 seasons, even getting his first free meal just after the Wild Card win.
“After that game — where did we go? I think we went to the Cheesecake Factory right in the Inner Harbor,” Saunders said. “I think the manager of the Cheesecake Factory came over and said, ‘Hey, you pitched awesome for us. Your lunch is on us today.’ That’s the first time that has ever happened to me, and my wife was there and she was just floored, and I was floored, too. I was like, ‘Oh, this is so cool!’ We were so appreciative and [said], ‘Thank you, you don’t have to do that.’ But that was like the coolest thing to be able to do that for your hometown team.
“People actually recognized me — nobody ever really recognized me, and I kind of liked that fact. But people [started to] recognize me and were like, ‘Oh, thank you so much; you’re amazing; now we’re in the playoffs and it’s awesome!’ It was good times.”
For more from Saunders, listen to the full interview here: