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Mariners notebook: Mike Zunino reestablishes himself as No. 1 catcher

Seattle catcher Mike Zunino, who also homered Tuesday, rounds the bases past Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts after homering on Wednesday. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
Seattle catcher Mike Zunino, who also homered Tuesday, rounds the bases past Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts after homering on Wednesday. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
By Bob Dutton Tacoma News Tribune

SEATTLE – While attention throughout Marinerland focused this week on rookie Edwin Diaz replacing veteran Steve Cishek as the club’s closer, a much quieter changing of the guard is taking place behind the plate.

Mike Zunino started Thursday for the 10th time in 13 games since his July 20 recall from Triple-A Tacoma. Official pronouncement or not, he has clearly supplanted veteran Chris Iannetta as the Mariners’ primary catcher.

“We’re going to give Mike a chance to play,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “This year is about Mike Zunino and putting him in a good spot. Keeping him going. We’ve got to find out what we’ve got.

“We took the steps backward. He went to Triple-A. He made adjustments in his approach. How is it going to play at the big-league level? The only way to find that out is to play him. We’ll find out.”

So far, so good.

Zunino, 25, carried a .286 average (10 for 35) into Thursday’s series finale against Boston. His 10 hits included three doubles and five homers. He said the game feels slower now than in his previous two-plus years in the big leagues.

“Much slower,” he said. “I think that’s just me trusting myself, trusting my approach. That’s something that I’ve obviously had a lot of work on, and it’s one of those things that I’m still working on.”

The Mariners always planned to reinsert Zunino into their catching mix over the second half of the season – if he responded, as hoped, at Tacoma – but Iannetta hastened the move by plunging into a prolonged slump at the plate and behind it.

Iannetta, 33, is batting .132 over his last 22 games, which dropped his season average to .212 for 78 games. His on-base percentage, typically a strong point even when he isn’t getting hits, is down to .309, which is the second lowest in his career.

Worse, the major defensive metrics show Iannetta in an alarming slide.

One example: He is on pace to finish at minus-7.5 in runs saved compared to average over 1,000 innings (about 112 games) in computations by Baseball Info Solutions.

That’s down from a plus-10 in the same metric a year ago while playing for the Los Angeles Angels.

In contrast, Zunino’s defense has long been viewed as a plus. He finished at plus-6.7 in the same BIS metric a year ago and is roughly on the same pace this season in limited action.

“I really like where Mike is at right now,” Servais said. “The confidence is growing, and that’s what we tried to create this year – to get him back in a good spot mentally and physically.”

Zunino’s strikeout rate, while still high, is also down from a year ago.

“There’s no panic,” Servais said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. Even in spring training, when he’d get down in the count, he’d have that panic and start swinging at balls that he really couldn’t hit. You don’t see that.

“He’s struck out a few times here, but his at-bats have been very good. Very competitive. He’s laying off some tough pitches. And when he gets a pitch to hit, he’s put a good swing on it.”

Zunino’s leadoff homer Tuesday in the eighth inning ignited a five-run rally the produced a 5-4 victory over the Red Sox. He also had a homer in Wednesday’s 3-1 victory.

“It’s always nice,” Zunino said. “Having some results there eases the tension in it. One of the things there, too, is that you know there’s going to be some stretches where it’s not going so good.

“Just continuing to trust what you’re doing, trust your routine and bring that to the game.”

Chisek to DL

Former closer Cishek is heading to the 15-day disabled list after being diagnosed with a left hip labrum tear. The move is retroactive to Tuesday.

Cishek underwent a magnetic resonance imaging test (MRI) on Wednesday and received a cortisone shot. The injury is not believed to be serious, and club officials believe he can return after the 15-day layoff.

“We fully expect him to be out throwing in four or five days,” Servais said, “and then, hopefully, get him back up and going again after the 15 days are up.”

Cishek said he first experienced discomfort in late June.

“Really, lately, if you watched my last eight outings,” he said, “the stuff has just gone down a little bit. I was starting to pitch a little more (tentatively) because the velocity was down a tick. I just wasn’t having the same life on my fastball.”

But the problem worsened during his recent appearances and affected his performance. He surrendered runs Sunday and Monday in the ninth inning that eventually led to losses.

“I went through a stretch where I was still getting people out,” he said, “so I was just kind of dealing with it. I was too prideful to say anything.

“But once it really starting affecting my performance, my shoulder started getting more sore, and I was throwing all arm because I couldn’t get through my delivery, I figured it was time to say something.”

Cishek is 2-6 with a 3.40 ERA and 25 saves overall in 44 appearances but allowed eight runs and 11 hits in 10 innings over his last 10 appearances.

“There’s definitely optimism,” he said. “I was actually excited to get the MRI and hear what the doctor said. When you hear tears, you think worst things possible. But I guess it’s not too uncommon.

“I’m just hoping after this little stint, I’ll come back stronger than ever before.”

The Mariners replaced Cishek on their 25-man roster by selecting the contract of Tacoma closer Blake Parker, who had a 2.72 ERA and 19 saves in 38 games for the Rainiers.

To clear space for Parker on the 40-man organizational roster, the Mariners released right-hander Mayckol Guaipe, who is recently opted against surgery after being diagnosed with a ulnar collateral ligament injury.

Griffey weekend

The weekend celebration to mark the retirement of Ken Griffey Jr’s No. 24 begins Friday when his Hall of Fame plaque arrives for public viewing at Safeco Field.

The Mariners will also wear replica jerseys from 1989, Griffey’s rookie season, for their game against the Los Angeles Angels. The jerseys will have a patch commemorating the retirement of Griffey’s number.

The first 20,000 fans through the turnstiles will get a Griffey Hall of Fame bobblehead doll.

Griffey’s number will be retired Saturday in a pregame ceremony that begins at 5:30 p.m. The first 20,000 fans will get a replica of Griffey’s Hall of Fame plaque. On Sunday, the first 20,000 fans will get a replica of Griffey’s 1989 jersey.

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