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Saunders excited to represent Canada in Classic

SEATTLE -- Michael Saunders makes it clear that his first priority this spring will be getting ready for the Mariners' season, but he's pretty pumped about playing for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic as well.

Saunders, who grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, was one of 23 players listed on a preliminary roster for the Classic released by Canada over the weekend.

"I got called a couple months ago and asked to participate," Saunders said Monday from his offseason home in Castle Rock, Colo. "I checked with the front-office guys and coaching staff, and they were on board and OK with it. Once I heard they were behind me 100 percent, it was a no-brainer for me."

Saunders played for Canada in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but missed the '09 Classic while recovering from shoulder surgery.

"I feel real excited to represent my country again," he said. "Canadians in baseball are a tight little fraternity. I'm very excited to see the guys. It'll be a nice little reunion."

Saunders will head to Peoria, Ariz., to work out at the Mariners' facility on Feb. 2, getting an early jump on Spring Training, which starts with pitchers and catchers reporting Feb. 12 and position players on Feb. 15.

He'll train with the Mariners as normal through March 2, then hook up with Team Canada for its workouts in Phoenix for several days before Canada opens tournament play against Italy on March 7 at nearby Salt River Fields.

Canada then plays Mexico on March 8 and the U.S. on March 10 at Chase Field in the Pool D round-robin phase. The top two teams from the pool advance to the second round in Miami the following week, with the championship round set for San Francisco from March 17-19.

Saunders and Alex Liddi are the only two Mariners to be officially named by their countries so far, with Liddi playing for the Italian club that faces Canada in the first game.

Felix Hernandez indicated in September that he planned to play for Venezuela. Reliever Oliver Perez pitched for Mexico in the '09 Classic and is believed to be interested in doing so again.

Other possible Mariners include Robert Andino with Puerto Rico and Vinnie Catricala with Italy, but "provisional" Classic rosters don't have to be submitted until Wednesday and final rosters are due on Feb. 20.

Hisashi Iwakuma has said he won't compete this year after helping Japan win the '09 championship. Erasmo Ramirez pitched for Nicaragua in a Classic qualifier in November, but his team was eliminated.

Saunders enjoyed a breakout season with the Mariners last year when he took over the starting center-field job following an injury to Franklin Gutierrez, hitting .249 with 19 home runs and 21 stolen bases while playing excellent defense.

Saunders spent the offseason in Colorado working with private hitting instructor Mike Bard for a second straight year and says he's "starting to get the itch" to get back on the field soon. He hopes the time spent with Team Canada will only enhance his preparation for 2013.

"First and foremost, I'm devoted to the Mariners," Saunders said. "I look at this as an opportunity to play. It's kind of taking over for the Olympics, but at a much more competitive level. It's the best players representing their countries instead of the best amateurs, so the competition will be the best in the world.

"That will be great. And just being around the clubhouse with some of those guys who are Major League vets and have had success will be beneficial as well."

Team Canada also includes Major Leaguers Justin Morneau, Brett Lawrie, Russell Martin, John Axford and Jesse Crain. Reds star Joey Votto wasn't named to the initial provisional roster, but he is expected to play for Canada if some insurance issues can be worked out as he returns from a knee injury.

Former Mariners prospects Phillippe Aumont and Tyson Gillies, who were traded to the Phillies as part of the Cliff Lee deal in December 2009, are also on Canada's roster.

Outfielder Jason Bay, who played for Canada in the first two Classics in 2006 and '09, has chosen not to participate this year as he attempts a bounceback year with the Mariners after signing a one-year deal this offseason.

Seattle Mariners, Canada, Michael Saunders