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September 12, 2011

Home is where his heart is

By: Marc Mullen

Years ago while with the Angels, former Tech pitcher Joe Saunders established his home in Arizona and now he loves pitching for the hometown Arizona Diamondbacks

Photo of Saunders courtesy of Jordan Megenhardt, Arizona Diamondbacks

With the recent selection of former Virginia Tech pitcher Brad Clontz, who enjoyed a six-year Major League career most notably with the Atlanta Braves, as a 2011 inductee into the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame, it brings to mind many of the other Hokies who made it to the big leagues.

Starting with Erwin Renfer, who played one season with the Detroit Tigers in 1913, Tech has seen its share of first-round selections (Brad DuVall, Franklin Stubbs and Denny Wagner); players who have played in the postseason (Clontz, Johnny Oates, Stubbs and Mike Williams); and Hokies who have been All-Stars (Toby Atwell and Williams).

However, only one former Tech player – Joe Saunders – can say he has been all three, and he is currently working his hardest on adding his name to “World Series Champion” (Stubbs and Clontz) as well. He is a main cog for the Arizona Diamondbacks, an inexperienced postseason team trying to hold off the defending World Series Champion San Francisco Giants in a tight National League West Division race.

“I’m not really a guy that is going to go around and say ‘I’ve been there, I’ve done that and you need to listen to me,’” Saunders, who is one of only a handful of players on the D-backs roster with any playoff experience, said recently in a phone interview.

“Once September hits, I feel like September, in the majors, is a whole other season in itself. As a player, you want to work your tail off, but you don’t want to press too much. If they’d ask, I’d tell them, ‘It’s going to be a grind, mentally and physically, and maybe a little less is better right now because we are six months into the season and your body needs time to rejuvenate as much as it can.’”

The last time Inside Hokie Sports caught up with Saunders was shortly after the 2008 All-Star game and the birth of his daughter, and in the three years since, it has certainly been a roller coaster ride for him.

He experienced the highs during the ‘08 and ‘09 seasons, as he combined for a 33-14 record in 62 starts and helped the Angels to back-to-back postseason appearances, solidifying himself as a proven Major League pitcher.

Boston eliminated his team, taking three of four games in a best-of-5 Division Series in ‘08, but after sweeping the Red Sox a year later in the same series, Los Angeles took on the New York Yankees. Saunders made two starts in the American League Championship Series, earning a no-decision in Game 2 after a seven-inning, two-earned run, five-strikeout performance that saw the Yankees pull out the victory, 4-3, in 13 innings.

The next time he took the ball it was in Game 6, and he did not fair as well that night in the Bronx, lasting just 3 1/3 innings and being hurt mostly by the five walks he surrendered. The Yankees would go on to win their 27th World Series title two weeks later.

“When we went to that ALCS [in 2009], it was a lot of fun, but there was a lot of pressure,” Saunders said. “We had to get through Boston first, and they pretty much owned us. But as I remember in Game 1 against Boston, Torii Hunter came up and hit a two-run home run to give us a lead, and that was a huge momentum lift for us and that’s what the postseason is all about.

“The playoffs are high intensity, high pressure, and every pitch counts. You try to treat it like any other game, but the stakes are so high, it just raises all of your levels. You need to be able to control that the best you can and try and stay as calm as you can but still maintain that intense focus. And those games are all about pitching, and nine times out of 10, whoever pitches the best is going to win.”

Then came the low.

Less than 10 months after falling a couple games short of a World Series appearance, Saunders was blindsided near the trade deadline as he was sent to Arizona in an attempt by the Angels, as it was stated in reports, “to upgrade their starting rotation.” They acquired fellow starting pitcher Dan Haren. Saunders found himself going from a team in a playoff race to a team that was in last place in its division and in a rebuilding mode with an interim manager.

“It was a tough trade for me because I was up and down that year, losing a number of tough decisions which included that last game in Texas when I had pitched my brains out,” Saunders said. “I pitched seven innings and allowed one run and threw a career-high 126 pitches and gave everything I had and we lost 1-0.

“The next day I got called into Mike Scioscia’s [L.A.’s manager] office, and I thought ‘What could this be about?’ and I come to find out that I got traded, and to find out it was for another pitcher was hard. We were missing hitters, and if I was traded for a hitter, it would have been fine, but I didn’t think we needed pitching.

“I was mad, I was pissed and the press never gave me a chance to let it sink in. So I did get a little embarrassed, a little emotional in front of the cameras, but I just couldn’t help myself. I was pretty messed up.”

However, with a full year to adjust to the trade, he says it was “a blessing in disguise.”

He left Tech in 2002 as the 12th pick in the MLB Draft, and after a couple years, he looked to settle down with his wife, former Hokie softball player Shanel Garofalo, and he said he realized that Arizona would be the perfect place to purchase a home.

“(In Arizona), I can wake up and it’s 70 degrees and sunny every day,” he said. “So I can go out and do whatever I want. I can work out, I can go golfing, I can throw, and it just seemed like great fit for me.

“Looking back on it [the trade] now, it couldn’t have been a better trade for me and my family. I get to live at home, I get to sleep in my own bed and I get to play in my hometown. So I’m just fortunate enough now to be a part of a great ballclub.”

So he is back on the highs, which includes the couple welcoming their second daughter this past December.

The family is also doing its part to give back to the community. They started “Team Saundo”, which is committed to helping underserved children in the Phoenix area through various initiatives. One of those included teaming up with Communities In Schools this summer for a back-to-school initiative to get 2,000 backpacks filled with school supplies.

“We asked fans to bring in back-to-school supplies, and one Sunday, we packed up all the supplies fans had brought and supplies we had bought,” he said. “School buses of kids came to the stadium, and we just handed out the backpacks to all the kids so they could get a good start to the school year. We were proud of that, and I know the kids will benefit from it, and the parents were pretty thankful, too.”

Another thing that Saunders has enjoyed since his trade is hitting. In the National League, pitchers are required to bat, something he hadn’t done on a regular basis since his high school days back in 2000.

It took him just 12 at-bats as a full-time NL pitcher to collect his first Major League hit, which also included his first career RBI. And this year, he hasn’t been an easy out, collecting 11 base hits, one of just eight pitchers to enter September with more than 10 hits this season, a list led by his teammate Daniel Hudson (17).

“It was a lot of fun at first, taking BP every day at home. Getting to swing the bats and getting sore because of using muscles I haven’t used in, like, 12 years,” Saunders said. “But it was kind of a crash course for me. Being in the American League for so long and focusing on strictly pitching, and then come over to the National League, you have to refocus on hitting.

“That was a bit of a learning curve, having to lay down a bunt and move a runner, being a threat up there. We have worked on it, and I have swung the bat pretty decent this year. It’s been fun. I think the National League style is more fun.”

The fun and the highs will continue for him into October, whether the D-backs advance into the postseason or not. They currently lead the National League West.

During spring training, Saunders was asked to submit a weekly column as a special to USA TODAY, and that caught the eye of a current Tech employee who sent a special invitation.

“We haven’t been able to get back to Blacksburg in a while, but we are planning a trip this fall, hopefully, and hopefully not – if you understand what I mean – for Homecoming,” he said. “I did that journal during spring training and Frank Beamer saw that and gave us a cordial invite to come down to a football game, and we are going to definitely take him up on that.

“Which game, we aren’t sure yet, but tentatively the Boston College game for Homecoming. It should be a lot of fun and we are really excited to get back to school.”

According to the Major League schedule, October 22 – the day of the BC football game – is Game 3 of the World Series. D-back fans, Tech fans, and even Saunders himself certainly would be thrilled if that was something that kept him from coming back.