ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — On a day where all the focus was on Felix Hernandez’s brilliance and the ninth-inning rally for the Mariners’ 5-0 win over the Tampa Bay Rays, manager Lloyd McClendon paid some respect where it was due to start his postgame media session.
“One thing I want to say before I forget,” he said. “Today my catcher was outstanding and probably saved the game for us. … He did a tremendous job. Sometimes that goes unnoticed.”
That catcher was Mike Zunino, who has blossomed into a foundation-level player for the organization.
Oftentimes the work a catcher does behind the plate goes unnoticed unless he makes a mistake. Zunino went 0 for 3 at the plate with a couple of strikeouts and was hit by pitch, but his effort behind the plate catching the Mariners’ ace was key.
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“No hits, but he won a game for us,” McClendon said. “That’s pretty good.”
For Mariners fans, the appreciation of Zunino’s work behind the plate hasn’t been completely overlooked. Much of that is due to the subpar catching they’ve endured since Dan Wilson retired. The names of Ben Davis, Kenji Johjima, Miguel Olivo, Jeff Clement, Rob Johnson and others bring vivid memories of passed balls and poor receiving.
Zunino has the potential to be better than Wilson in all facets, particularly offensively.
But on Sunday with Hernandez throwing BBs and his changeup moving all over, Zunino was beyond reliable — he was trustworthy.
“Ask that pitcher, he’ll tell you,” McClendon said.
Hernandez has dealt with his share of catchers who have been overwhelmed by the explosiveness of his pitches and their movement. Zunino stepped in a year ago with minimal minor-league experience and no major-league experience and handled it like a veteran. He’s getting better with each game.
“He’s pretty good,” Hernandez said. “I’m confident in my catcher. I have a lot of confidence in Mike.”
It was evident in his last inning of work. With two outs and a runner on third in a scoreless game, Hernandez faced Yunel Escobar and wasn’t afraid to bury his best pitch — a sinking changeup in the dirt — knowing that Zunino would block it and not let the run score.
“You got to have that guy back there,” McClendon said. “(Felix) was confident that he could make the pitches he needed to make and Zunino was going to block them. That’s pretty special.”
It was even more special since Zunino couldn’t quite block a changeup in the dirt earlier in the inning that allowed the runner to move to third.
“The changeup he threw that advanced the runner from second to third he sort of turned over a little bit too much and it rode into the right-handed hitters’ box,” Zunino said. “He made an adjustment and they had more down movement and gave me a better chance to block them. It’s part of the job title. I can’t let anything get by me in those situations.”
But Zunino doesn’t want anything to get by him ever. There is look of pure derision when a pitch bounces away — even a wild pitch.
“That’s what I want to do,” he said. “To me there should be no expectation of a ball getting by me. Not to the side of me. I want to keep everything in front of me no matter how much it bounces in front of me, how close to me, short-hop. That’s what I want.”
Saunders’ sore shoulder being strengthened
Michael Saunders hopes to be back on the field soon. No player seemingly hates missing time with injury more than the intense outfielder. He met with the Rays’ team doctor on Saturday, and the examination confirmed that there was no structural damage.
“My strength is good,” he said. “My shoulder is good. With it being my lead shoulder when I swing and my throwing shoulder, we are being a little (more) hesitant than we would otherwise. We are just looking for the discomfort to go away. I already see improvement today from yesterday.”