This is a truly significant responsibility, for Saunders or anybody else. But less than a week ago, this same situation presented itself for Saunders and the Baltimore club, and both prospered.
The left-hander had the starting assignment for the Orioles against the defending American League champion Texas Rangers in the AL Wild Card playoff game at Texas, where Saunders had never won a game.
No problem. Saunders, who had come to the Orioles from the Arizona Diamondbacks in a late-August trade, pitched superbly against a truly difficult Texas lineup. The left-hander worked 5 2/3 innings, giving up just one run on six hits with one walk and four strikeouts to earn the victory and keep Baltimore's season alive.
Saunders is being asked to do that again on Thursday night with the Orioles down, 2-1, in their AL Division Series matchup with the New York Yankees. Game 4 will be telecast by TBS at 7:30 p.m. ET on Thursday.
The Orioles had more than one option for this assignment. They were also considering Chris Tillman, who pitched well for Baltimore during the regular season, going 9-3 with a 2.93 ERA in 15 starts.
Saunders will face Phil Hughes, an undoubtedly talented pitcher, but one whose work has not yet settled into a comfortable pattern of consistent success. It was telling that when Hughes was asked on Wednesday how to characterize his 2012 season, he focused on his ability to bounce back from inadequate starts.
"Well, I was happy with the way I was able to rebound from some tough starts, and that was something that we really emphasized, just not letting things snowball and get out of control when they were bad," Hughes said.
"Obviously, some things I was disappointed with. I had a bad start to the season, had some bad starts mixed in. But looking at the positives, I felt like I was able to get the ball every five days and give us a chance to win as much as I could. I had kind of an up-and-down season, but you can't really look at the regular season when it comes to times like this."
The Yankees, with the series lead, won't be under the same pressure the Orioles will face in Game 4, but their choice of Hughes for this start does represent a vote of confidence. New York could have chosen to pitch CC Sabathia on short rest for Game 4, but a loss on Thursday night might have tempted the club to turn to Andy Pettitte on short rest for Friday's Game 5. Manager Joe Girardi said that with Pettitte at age 40 and already coming back from a left fibula injury, that would not be a viable option.
Orioles: Not an easy decision
As of Wednesday afternoon, Saunders and Tillman were tied in the race for Baltimore's Game 4 start. At a pregame media session for the Game 4 starters, Orioles manager Buck Showalter sent both pitchers to meet with reporters. When reporters asked which one was starting Game 4, Saunders smiled and said: "We were kind of hoping you would tell us."
By Wednesday night, after a 3-2 loss in 12 innings, Showalter had made the decision in favor of Saunders. This was not surprising, considering that Saunders has much more Major League experience than Tillman and is coming off the pressure-packed but successful performance against Texas.
"We feel good about both of them," Showalter said. "Joe, obviously, is coming off a real good start in a pressure situation, a game that we had to win, and he'll find himself back in that spot again. Joe is a guy that gives you a chance to win, and he'll compete. We feel good with him out there."
Yankees: All eyes on A-Rod
One big question for the Yankees will be the role of Alex Rodriguez for Game 4. Girardi did the unprecedented in Game 3, lifting A-Rod for pinch-hitter Raul Ibanez with one out in the ninth and the Yankees down, 2-1. Ibanez homered to tie the game, then homered again in the 12th inning to win it.
Rodriguez responded positively to this otherwise surprising development, saying all that mattered to him was what was best for the team. Girardi declined to speculate about what his lineup would look like on Thursday night.
"Let me sleep on this one," Girardi said.
The presence of the left-handed Saunders on the mound for Baltimore would appear to increase the chances that Rodriguez will be back in the Yankees' starting lineup.
Ibanez became the first player in postseason history to hit a home run in the ninth inning and extra innings of the same game, and he's the first Yankees player to hit a game-tying home run in the ninth inning or later of a postseason game since Rodriguez in 2009.
The only extra-innings games the Orioles have lost this season have come against the Yankees. The O's are 0-3 against New York in extra innings, having lost Game 3 of the ALDS, 3-2, on Wednesday night and games in Baltimore on April 10 and 11. Those were the Orioles' first two extra-innings games of the season. Aside from those losses and the Game 3 defeat, the O's have won all 16 of their other extra-innings games in 2012.