The Mariners had a few of their recent draft picks at Safeco Field on Tuesday to take batting practice, and the symbolism wasn’t lost on Mike Zunino. The catcher, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 draft, was spending his first day in the major leagues after being called up from Class AAA Tacoma.
“It’s crazy, seeing draft picks here hitting batting practice like I was a year ago,” he said. “To feel you’re actually a part of the Mariners is sort of unreal to me. I’m going to keep working hard, and try do my best, and hopefully bring a hard-nosed attitude to this team, and help this team go.”
Zunino’s day began in Las Vegas, and it got a jolt with a mid-morning phone call in his hotel room from Mariners farm director Chris Gwynn. After they exchanged pleasantries, Gwynn asked him, “Why do you think I’m calling you?”
“I can think of two things,’’ Zunino replied.
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“I think it’s probably the better of the two,” Gwynn told him.
With an increasing need for catching help on the major-league roster, the Mariners selected the 22-year-old Zunino from Tacoma. Rookie Brandon Bantz was designated for assignment to make room on both the 25- and 40-man rosters. Zunino, who was not in the starting lineup for the Mariners Tuesday night, was hitting .238 with 11 homers and 43 runs batted in for Tacoma. He had struck out 59 times in 185 at-bats.
After hanging up with Gwynn, Zunino called his wife, Alyssa, who was downstairs, and told her to come up as fast as she could. After he broke the news to her, he drove with Tacoma trainer Tom Newberg to the ballpark of the Pacific Coast League’s Las Vegas 51s, packed his equipment, rushed to the airport and caught a flight to Seattle (his family in Florida plans to fly to Seattle Wednesday). Zunino arrived at Safeco in time to take batting practice in the final group.
“I don’t think I could have pictured this a year ago, that this is where I’d be,” he said. “It’s exceeded anything I ever dreamed of. I’m just going to embrace it and take it as it comes.”
General manager Jack Zduriencik said the Mariners’ callup of Zunino was dictated by an injury to catcher Jesus Sucre. Bantz was envisioned as a short-term fill-in, but that changed when Sucre went on the disabled list. With Kelly Shoppach’s workload increasing and manager Eric Wedge reluctant to use Bantz, the decision was made to call up Zunino.
“We had a little bit of a later target date (for Zunino), but when you look at (the fact that) we had an injury right now, there’s no harm in bringing him up,” Zduriencik said.
“We were all impressed with what he did in spring training. I don’t think anybody here is expecting miracles. We’re not looking like he’s the answer. We’re just looking as we put this together and where we’re at right now, we know he’s going to be a guy that is counted on going forward and it’s the right thing to do at this time for him. So we’ll bring him up here, give him a chance to play and see how it works out.”
Asked how he’s going to use Zunino, Wedge said, “Some of that will depend on him. He doesn’t have to come up here and play every day. That’s not something he has to do. But he’s going to play, and play consistently. We’ll just see how it plays out.”
Wedge added, “You look at his path and what we saw all spring, what we know he’s doing in Triple-A, we felt it was a good time to start his big-league career. He’s so comfortable in his own skin, he handles everything very well, he’s a complete player, so we felt it was time for him to take the next challenge.”
Asked what he would say to those who feel he’s not ready, Zunino said, “All I can do is go out and play the best ball I can. If I can help the ball team win in any way, I think that’s being ready. That’s what I’m going to try to do.”
Zunino believes his struggles this year that brought his average under .200 at one point will help him in the long term.
“You learned about yourself as a ballplayer,” he said. “You have to go through struggles to have good times when you’re playing. Everyone is going to encounter those. I had great help from the coaching staff and my teammates to get back on track … It was a matter of putting the last game behind me and focusing on the next one.”
And now the next one for Zunino will be in the major leagues.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.