Mike Zunino came through with a key two-run single in the Mariners' 8-7 extra-inning win over the Orioles on Wednesday night
BALTIMORE — Mike Zunino spoke with hope in his voice about his at-bats from the night before and how they might carry into Wednesday night’s game vs. the Orioles.
He knows he’s been struggling for large portions of the season, unable to find that swing, that feeling at the plate that he felt for so much of last season.
And yet …
“I’ve been in much worse circumstances than this,” he said with a wry smile recalling the slumps of seasons past. “That’s the way I look at it.”
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And that’s why he chose to focus on the positives of his most recent at-bats.
“Yesterday was the best day I’ve had by far in the sense of feeling back to where I want to get,” he said before Wednesday’s game. “It took a little while. But I’m trusting what I’m doing. I was able to drive three fastballs to the right side. I feel like I hunted my pitches. It’s nice to able to have that and build than into the next few games here.”
So what was it about those at-bats on Tuesday night that made Zunino feel so pleased with his progress? He went 0-for-4 with a few hard fly balls to right field, making him 3 for 30 on the road trip. But as he watched video, it re-affirmed what he felt at the plate in the moment
“I was looking at last night’s at-bats and I was able to hit fastballs middle and middle away and drive them to right field, which is what I want to do,” he said.
Can it be as something as simple as a couple of outs made to right field?
“It’s trusting your mechanics and being square,” he said. “For me, it’s getting my front foot down and not drifting and trying to get the ball where I need to make contact. It’s constant work in the cage. And one day, one at-bat it clicks and that’s when everything sort of falls into place.”
That seminal at-bat didn’t happen right away in the Mariners’ 8-7 win over the Orioles in extra innings later that night. In Zunino’s first at-bat, Orioles starter Alex Cobb lost control of a 92 mph fastball that rode up and in, striking Zunino in the helmet.
Replays show Zunino moving his head just enough and the ball striking the helmet and additional protective face flap.
“It sort of got the curve of the bill and a piece of that chin thing,” Zunino said. “I got lucky with that. I take shots a lot, but that’s the first one in the head in the batter’s box.”
After a conversation with athletic trainer Matt Toth and manager Scott Servais, Zunino remained in the game.
But maybe that at-bat came in the fifth inning when the feeling produced a result the Mariners needed, trailing 4-3.
With two outs and runners on second and third, Orioles manager Buck Showalter decided to have starter Alex Cobb intentionally walk Ben Gamel to load the bases and face Zunino.
Given the fact that it gave the Orioles a force out at every base and Zunino has struck out in 40 percent of his plate appearances this season, it wasn’t bad strategy.
“You get a right-on-right matchup and Gamel has been swinging the bat extremely well,” Zunino said. “You usually play that.”
He fell behind quickly in the count. Down 1-2, Cobb tried to run a fastball off the plate away. Zunino didn’t chase. Cobb came back with another fastball away, but it was on the outside corner. Zunino stayed on the ball, driving a hard single back up the middle to score two runs.
“It was nice to have a swing pieced together,” he said. “I was able to get my swing off when I wanted to and kept it within the zone I wanted to. ”
It was a small victory in a long battle to find results and consistency.
“It was big for him, confidence-wise,” Servais said. “He hasn’t gotten much going in terms of consistency. It’s starting to come back around for him. We certainly need him. He’s an important part of our lineup. It helps his confidence. You want to contribute offensively and it means a lot to Mike to chip in there.”
For Kyle Seager, who has also endured his share of struggles this season, seeing his close friend and teammate get rewarded with a positive result was gratifying.
“That was a really big hit,” Seager said. “But even some of his other passes at the ball, the swing was clean. He hasn’t been getting the results so getting that hit was big. He works and works and takes a lot of pride in his swing and being a part of the offense.”
Still, Zunino is hitting .191 with a .654 on-base plus slugging percentage, seven doubles, 11 homers and 27 RBI. His walk rate is down 4.7 percent from 9 percent last season while his strikeout rate is 39.7 percent up from 37 percent in 2017. Per Fangraphs’ O-swing percentage, he’s swung at 35.3 percent of the pitches out of the strikezone, which is also up from 30.1 percent in 2017.
Admittedly, Zunino tried to swing his way out of the slow periods.
“I went through that a few weeks ago, when your swing is borderline feeling good and you want to get your swing off and see how it feels,” he said. “And that can lead you into the same trap from before.”
But just because he’s fallen into that trap before, it doesn’t mean that it’s any easier to escape.
“It’s building and having good at-bats,” he said. “Results are going to happen, but if you can have continuous good at-bats, barrel balls up, that’s a good sign that it would lead to everything else.”
But what other signs should people be looking for beyond the results to know when the process is right.
“I think it’s my balance — the ease of takes, the ease of swings,” he said. When my effort level looks like it’s climbing in the box, it comes down to certain components. Most likely my load is late. I want to be earlier and slower with those movements so everything is under control. When it’s slow and easy and controlled, that’s when you know I’m settling in.”