For junior pitcher Mike Saunders, waiting was the hardest part.
After dominating the GLIAC with a school-record 1.23 ERA, the lowest in the conference and the second lowest in the country, the Mount Morris native waited to hear from the major league scouts who had been attending his games to watch him pitch all season.
“I had almost three weeks after the time our season ended,” Saunders said. “I was playing catch, throwing full bullpen sessions to simulate games and keep my arm in shape so that I could go down to these camps and show teams what I could do.”
Saunders received invitations to work out for the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers on June 1 and 2, less than a week before the Major League Baseball Draft.
“I had a pretty good idea that I would be drafted, but I didn’t know when, and to whom,” Saunders said. “It was tough to just sit there listening to the draft and wait until I finally heard my name called.”
Saunders waited until the 24th round, when the Cincinnati Reds selected him with pick No. 742 overall. He is only the fourth SVSU player to be drafted, and the first since another pitcher, Brian Paluk, was taken in the 50th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1996.
“Absolutely everyone is ecstatic,” Saunders said. “It was kind of a shocker, the amount of people that have actually contacted me and congratulated me and wished me luck. I’ve had people that I hadn’t talked to since I was in first grade calling me and congratulating me.
“It’s all pretty jaw-dropping and eye-opening, this whole journey I’m about to be on.”
In 10 starts this season, Saunders finished 7-2, striking out 72 batters in 73.1 innings pitched. Without him on the mound, the Cardinals had a record of 19-24.
“He’s the best pitcher in the league,” said head baseball coach Walt Head. “I know he wasn’t pitcher of the year, but he should have been. Mike probably should have been 9-0, but we just couldn’t score runs.”
Saunders’ performance this season was a significant improvement from his sophomore year, when he went 5-4 with a 4.81 ERA, and his freshman season, when he saw limited time and finished with an 5.87 ERA.
“He’s worked hard,” Head said. “He’s one of those kids who came in throwing 82-84 miles per hour, and he just worked extremely hard. He’s an 89-91 guy now, but he’s capable of hitting 94.
“He’s a special kid because of his work ethic.”
Even though his work was rewarded, Saunders still has more waiting to do. He and his family are expecting a call from the Reds to see the terms of the contract that the team will offer him. From there, the nursing junior will have to decide whether to accept their offer or finish his degree at SVSU.
Saunders has two years of school left, but only one year of baseball eligibility.
“It’s a tough decision, so I have to weigh my options,” Saunders said. “It’s been my dream to become a professional athlete, and now I have my foot in the door.”
“I’m just going to have to consult with my family. Ultimately, it will be my decision, but right now it’s still just waiting a little bit for (the Reds) to contact me again.”
Head said that Saunders will have opportunities regardless of what decision he makes.
“A lot of it depends on how much money he gets,” said Head, who worked as a major league scout for the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays in the 1970s and 1980s. “If he gets enough money, I’ve told him he should sign and he should go. But if he doesn’t get enough money and he comes back to school, he’s going to be one of the best kids in the state this year.
“Some people will tell you that he might not get drafted again, but he’ll get drafted again.”
If Saunders does return for his senior season, he will be the ace in a Cardinal rotation that includes two other MLB hopefuls in Carson Beauchaine (2.41 ERA) and Mike Schaaf (1.85 ERA).
“Mike is a good student. If he comes back for his senior year, we’re going to be one of the best teams in the country,” Head said. “He doesn’t have to jump at the pro decision because he’s got his senior season coming up in front of him, he’s got his baseball scholarship, he’s got a lot of things going here.
“But whatever he does, we’re going to wish him the best.”
Head, who has been at the helm for the Cardinals for 30 years, has seen his players get drafted by MLB teams and heard of players getting signed as free agents from SVSU teams before his tenure as skipper began. The most successful of those players was Roger Mason, a 1980 graduate who was signed by the Detroit Tigers, made his major league debut in 1984 and played 14 seasons for six different teams, pitching in the playoffs with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the 1993 World Series with the Philadelphia Phillies.
“I think it’s going to happen more,” Head said. “We should have a couple of guys next year in Mike and Carson. I wouldn’t be surprised if both of them got drafted next year.”
If Saunders signs, he will likely begin his career in the Reds’ minor league farm system. Cincinnati has affiliates at four levels: There are three rookie teams in located in Montana, Arizona and the Dominican Republic, two single-A teams in Dayton, Ohio and Bakersfield, Calif., a double-A team in Penascola, Fla. and a triple-A team in Louisville, Ky.
“I’m excited to not have that Division 2 title hung over my head anymore,” Saunders said. “Now that I’m in, everyone is at the same level.
Saunders said that the opportunity to represent SVSU in the big leagues is a dream of his.
“It’s great the be given that opportunity to go out and show that there are people from small schools that have the talent and ability to go out and be successful in the major leagues,” he said. “I’m just ready to go show that Saginaw Valley can represent.”