MIAMI -- He has always known exactly what he wanted to do with his life.
There was no equivocation with Tony Saunders, who will start the biggest game of his career tonight for the Florida Marlins at Pro Player Stadium.
And, this is precisely where he had dreamed he would be.
"It was baseball or nothing," said the Baltimore-area native. "Or maybe baseball or a warehouse worker. That was the choice."
Saunders, 23, has come a long way from the Glen Burnie High School kid who was signed by the Marlins as a non-drafted free agent in 1992.
In fact, he had come a long way before that.
"His older brother, Billy, has had a tremendous amount of influence on him," said Glen Burnie coach Bruce Sider, who had Tony for only his senior year.
"The family situation [divorced parents] was not too stable, but it was more stable with his mom. He went to Howard High for a couple of years when he lived with her, then here.
"The one thing I noticed about him is that he was focused in a different way than any athlete I've ever had. Some kids focus on academics, some have unrealistic goals about being a pro athlete.
"But Tony knew he had the ability to make the majors and exactly where he was going."
Saunders also overcame elbow surgery in 1994 and really began getting noticed last year, when he went 13-4 with a 2.63 ERA for the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs.
The most striking statistic about the left-hander is that he was 3-0 with a 1.65 ERA against the Braves and 1-6 with a 5.58 ERA in his other games.
"It's a bigger surprise to me than anybody," said Saunders, whose role may grow because of the Marlins' loss of Alex Fernandez. "You look at [the Braves'] lineup and you'd never think a little scrappy left-hander like me would do that well.
"It's just fortunate that it worked out that way. You know you can't afford to make mistakes against them and there have been a lot of great plays made behind me."
Saunders did not pitch in the Marlins' sweep of the San Francisco Giants in the Division Series, but said that shouldn't be a problem.
"I've been in that situation several times," he said. "I skipped a start at the end of the season, so I'm kind of used to it."
Staying in control of his emotions when things aren't going well has been the biggest challenge for Saunders.
"Up until this year, I really didn't have much failure, so one of the lessons I had to learn was how to deal with my emotions," he said. "I can't let it get the better of me. I'm sure I'm going to be nervous, but I still have my job to do."
Saunders said he used to "think a lot about everything" on the mound, but adversity has taught him to "keep aggressive, no matter what happens."
Florida is not a big drawing card during the season, but Saunders will be working against John Smoltz before a jam-packed stadium tonight.
Fortunately, he doesn't have to pitch against Tom Glavine, whose advice he sought during the season.
"If I had a son, I'd want him to be just like [Glavine]," Saunders said of the man who shut down the Marlins with a three-hitter in Game 2. "You can't tell if he's winning 10-0 or losing 10-0 when he's on the mound. He's aggressive, smart and just a true pro."
Saunders has the self-confidence. What he needs is more experience.
"He has a personality that is filled with cockiness, but it doesn't come off in a negative way," Sider said.
Overlooked because his "high school teams really never played for any state titles," Saunders has climbed a big mountain.
He declined a scholarship to George Mason because he knew he wanted to sign a pro contract. Now, he has reached another goal.
"The whole season has been a dream come true," he said. "The feeling is unbelievable. If people had told me in the spring that I would be pitching in the NLCS against the Braves, I would have told them they were crazy."
Future pitching matchups for the Marlins-Braves series:
Game 4, at Florida, 7: 37 p.m. tomorrow
Atl.: Denny Neagle (20-5, 2.97)
Fla.: Kevin Brown (16-8, 2.69)
Game 5, at Florida, 4: 07 p.m. Sunday
Atl.: Greg Maddux (19-4, 2.20)
Fla.: Al Leiter (11-9, 4.34)
Game 6, at Atlanta, 8: 07 p.m. Tuesday
Atl.: Tom Glavine (14-7, 2.96)
Fla.: Livan Hernandez (9-3, 3.18)
Game 7, at Atlanta, 8: 07 p.m. Wednesday
Atl.: Smoltz (15-12, 3.02)
Pub Date: 10/10/97