'Winding road' leads veteran left-hander Joe Saunders back to the Orioles

Left-hander Joe Saunders, who started the Orioles’ victory in the American League wild-card game two years ago, rejoined the club Monday in a much different role.

The Orioles, who purchased Saunders’ contract from Triple-A Norfolk as rosters expanded at the beginning of September, plan to use him as a multiple-inning reliever.

“It feels awesome,” Saunders said. “It’s been a winding road this year, for sure. It’s good to be back, good to be contributing again.”

The Orioles -- Saunders’ third organization this year -- signed him to a minor league deal Aug. 5 with the goal of converting him to a reliever for the stretch run. Saunders was released by the Texas Rangers in July after going 0-5 with a 7.26 ERA, and he was released by the Kansas City Royals later that month after four starts with their Triple-A club.

But Saunders has flourished in his new role as a reliever, with a 1.50 ERA in 10 games (12 innings) at Norfolk. Saunders recorded scoreless outings in eight of his last nine appearances, and he said he finally feels healthy after a line drive forced him to the disabled list with a bruised left foot in April.

“It’s been fun,” Saunders said of his transition to the bullpen. “It’s kind of a breath of fresh air, if you will. Coming to the ballpark knowing you can play every day almost, rather than every fifth day. It’s been fun.

“Does that stay my starting days are over? In my opinion, probably not. I feel like I probably wasn’t 100 percent after I got banged in the foot, maybe tried to come back a little early. I think there’s plenty more in the tank.”

The Orioles likely will use Saunders much like T.J. McFarland, as a left-handed reliever who can pitch multiple innings, but Orioles manager Buck Showalter said Saunders could see a spot start in the final month if there’s a need. The Orioles have a doubleheader Sept. 12 and could need an extra starter either for that day or the next turn in the rotation.

“It’s a seamless fit in the clubhouse,” Showalter said. “It’s a guy who everybody knows and has pitched in some big games for us, kind of a semi-local guy. He knows his way around. He kind of fits into what we’re trying to do here. Joe’s a pretty versatile guy. Somebody walks in here at 6:15 and can’t start, you can hand the ball to Joe. He would be an option to do that.”

Saunders always will have a place in Orioles history after earning the win in the 2012 AL wild-card game, holding Texas to one run over 5 2/3 innings in a 5-1 victory. Now, he can help the Orioles get back to the postseason this year.

"It’s up there for sure,” Saunders said when asked where the wild-card game ranked among his career highlights. ”Hopefully there’s more to come. It was a special game for sure.”



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