Mike Zunino had just four hits in his previous 40 at bats before landing on the disabled list on July 5. But what the Mariners missed most wasn't Zunino's bat.
As the Mariners defeated the Chicago White Sox in Sunday’s rubber match, giving Seattle its first series win after it lost three straight series going into the All-Star break, the club benefited from having their starting catcher back in the lineup.
Sure, Mike Zunino, who was activated off the 10-day disabled list ahead of the series finale, did not wow with his bat (he went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts and left two on base). But he did what he does best — calling the shots behind the plate — enough so that M’s manager Scott Servais said the catcher had a “big impact in the game today.”
“Zunino had a really good day, even though it doesn’t show up in the box score,” Servais said. “What he does behind the plate, not just with Marco, but the relievers coming in — reading swings, reading the bat, knowing when to stay with the fastball or go to the off-speed pitch — (is a) really important part of our team.”
Zunino returned to the lineup Sunday after his second stint on the DL this season — the most recent one due to a bone bruise on his left ankle. A corresponding move optioned backup David Freitas to Class AAA Tacoma.
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“We all loved having him (Zunino) back,” added starting pitcher Marco Gonzales, who carried a no-hit bid through five innings. “We’re anxious for his return and we know he’s going to have an impact.”
Though Zunino’s presence behind the plate is certainly a difference-maker, he’ll need to bring more than that — specifically more offensive production at the plate — as the team makes its way through the second half of the season. He has just four hits in his past 44 at-bats. And in 61 games this season, he is batting .185 (38 for 205), but has also contributed 12 home runs and 29 runs batted in.
Before Sunday’s game, Servais said Zunino “feels good” and that he was probably ready to be activated from the DL on Saturday. Servais said he ultimately thought it was best to give the catcher one more day in Tacoma in case any issues arose. In two rehab games with the Rainiers, Zunino went 1 for 5 with an RBI.
Servais is optimistic that Zunino is on his way out of the funk. He said the catcher is working to ensure his stance isn’t too narrow, as it had been for some time this season. Servais was pleased with Zunino’s progress in that regard and noted the catcher’s productive at-bats on the day that he got hurt (Zunino drew a walk and had a single July 4 against the Angels).
“Just trying to calm some things down, calm his head down, tracking balls a little bit better,” Servais said. “He came back, the couple games he played down there (in Tacoma), felt really good and was seeing the ball really good too.”
But what Seattle missed most about Zunino was, of course, his defense. Going into Sunday, the 27-year-old boasts the third-best catcher’s ERA in the American League, 3.65, and has six defensive runs saved this season, behind only Buster Posey (eight) and Russell Martin (seven) among catchers with at least 400 innings, according to Fangraphs.
“He knows the league so well and probably most important to us, he has good rapport with all of our pitchers, understanding what their strengths and weaknesses are and how to get them through innings,” Servais said. “It’s good to have your regular guy back.”
As a former catcher himself, Servais is acutely aware of the importance of having a consistent and reliable presence behind the plate. And for a team looking to make its first postseason appearance since 2001, Servais said Zunino has been able to provide that.
“Whether you like it or not, everybody on the field is looking at you,” Servais said. “That’s where the action’s at, so how you carry yourself, how you go about yourself, certainly when the team is struggling a little bit or you’re going through a bad inning, that’s where the experience can really help get your team over the hump. He (Zunino) has earned our trust in that point.”