Given the number of them on the Tampa Bay Rays roster, a former Mariner was likely going to play a part in the outcome of every game in this weekend series. It had already happened Friday night with Ji-Man Choi’s bases-loaded walk for the decisive run in a Tampa victory.
On Saturday, it was Mike Zunino’s turn to haunt his old team. The slugging catcher, who has struggled at the plate this season while losing playing time to Travis D’Arnaud, flashed some of the tantalizing power that made Mariners fans crazy with hope and frustration. It was a reminder of what he could’ve been, but has never quite been in his big-league career.
After receiving a loud ovation in his first at-bat of the night, Zunino made the crowd of 33,895 groan in his second at-bat when he smashed a three-run homer off lefty Tommy Milone into the un-watching mass of imbibing and cavorting fans known as The Pen. It ignited a four-run fifth inning and propelled the Rays to a 5-4 victory over the Mariners.
“That one was a good one,” he said. “It’s bittersweet in a sense. It’s time to close a chapter and open up a new one. It’s nice to be back here and to help this team anyway I can.”
His eighth homer of the season traveled some 436 feet, which is an impressive distance considering the lunging swing he put on a changeup that was on the fringes of the outside corner and lower part of the strike zone.
“It wasn’t a terrible location, but just kind of flat,” Milone said. “I’m pretty sure I gave up his first home run if I remember right.”
Indeed, Zunino smashed his first career homer off Milone when he was with the A’s. The game was June 14, 2013, at the Oakland Coliseum. Zunino now has three career homers off Milone.
“First time playing against your former team, I can remember doing it myself, you always have a little edge and you are fired up,” manager Scott Servais said. “Mike has big-time power and we’ve seen that before. He got a pitch he could handle and took care of it.”
Seattle banged around Tampa’s best starter, Charlie Morton, for four runs on nine hits in six innings, but also struck out 10 times.
They were 1 for 7 with runners in scoring position and struck out 15 total times in the game.
“He’s got multiple weapons,” Servais said. “We stuck out 15 times tonight. It’s tough to have a big night like that. You score four runs and think you are in good shape against him and it was just not enough.”
The Mariners may have found their permanent opener in Matt Wisler. The right-hander, who was acquired from the Padres on July 4 for cash considerations, made his fourth “start” as an opener and worked a quick 1-2-3 inning on just 10 pitches. He came back and worked another scoreless inning, allowing just one hit.
In four outings as the opener, he’s pitched a total of six shutout innings, allowing just two hits with five strikeouts and no walks.
But this time it was the pitcher who followed the opener who struggled. Milone worked just four innings, giving up five runs on six hits — three of them home runs — with no walks or strikeouts.
“My changeup was just a little flat,” Milone said. “And it seemed like they were kind of on it. I think I was just not finishing it very well. The locations were decent but it didn’t have that bite at the end that I would normally have when it’s down in the zone. I need that. When it’s flat, it becomes a more hittable pitch.”
Following Zunino’s homer, Kevin Kiermaier crushed a solo homer for the fourth run of the fifth inning.
Seattle answered with two runs in the bottom of the inning. Mallex Smith led off with his seventh triple of the season, a line drive into the right-field corner that allowed him to race to third with ease. He scored easily on J.P. Crawford’s ground ball to first base. Omar Narvaez cut the lead to 4-3 by adding to his career-high total (17) in home runs, launching a solo shot into the right-field seats.
The two teams exchanged runs in the sixth inning. Avisail Garcia crushed a solo homer to center and the Mariners answered with an RBI single from Tim Lopes.
The Mariners got an outstanding effort from rookie Reggie McClain, who was pitching at T-Mobile Park for the first time. McClain tossed three scoreless innings in relief of Milone, allowing just one hit and striking out two batters to give the chance for a comeback that never could be realized.