SEATTLE – It was a night that provided the Seattle Mariners and Mike Zunino hope for something more than what’s been. It was a performance that showcased all that the talented catcher could be and still might be in a Mariners uniform. It was verification of the decision not to give up on Zunino when almost everyone else said to discard the former No. 3 overall draft pick as another bust in a series of first-round failures.
Zunino may never have another performance like Saturday night in the Mariners’ 9-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays at Safeco Field.
How often does a three-hit, seven RBI night, including a monumental grand slam come along in a career?
But it goes beyond one colossal game. It wasn’t so much the sum of the performance that matters to the Mariners. It’s the individual aspects of each of the hits and what they represented in Zunino’s three-season fight to find an approach and a swing to believe in and the results to match the tireless effort he’s put into it.
Ask any player or coach about Zunino’s work ethic and commitment to the team and wanting to win and it is unquestioned. And yet, more has been needed from him, specifically at the plate, which is why he started last season at Class AAA Tacoma for a reconstruction of his swing, approach and development plan and was sent there again early this season for a brief reset to some early struggles.
He even came back with the “Zunino rules” as part of that checklist to get better. The Mariners know that if he can find a modicum of consistency at the plate, all of their patience will have been rewarded.
Obviously, the grand slam in the fifth inning that turned the game into a rout will be the highlight everyone talks about. It’s the highlight of any performance. Hitting a home run with the bases loaded is an accomplishment. But the terrifying and salivating power that Zunino exhibited to clear the bases with one violent lash was a sign of his freakish strength.
To that point, Zunino had already driven in three runs off Rays starter Alex Cobb.
In the fifth with Seattle up 4-1, Danny Valencia led off with his third single of the night, Taylor Motter drew a walk and Jarrod Dyson put down a perfect bunt that catcher Derek Norris couldn’t make a play on to load the bases.
Zunino stepped to the plate, having ambushed first pitches from Cobb for his previous two at-bats.
There would be no first-pitch magic. Zunino swung through a split-finger fastball for strike one and fouled off another to get down 0-2. A strikeout loomed.
But Zunino wouldn’t get himself out on a fastball away, refusing to swing at it. Cobb went back to the split-finger again on the 1-2 pitch and Zunino was ready.
He crushed the pitch on the inside half of the plate, sending a towering shot to left. The ball was a homer off the bat. But how far it would travel was the next question. When it finally landed, it was in the second row of bleachers from the top of the upper deck in left. It was maybe 10 feet from leaving Safeco Field completely. If it had been a day game or a warmer night, it might have done so. MLB Statcast measured the ball to have a 111 mph exit velocity and travel an estimated 441 feet.
He became the 11th Mariner to have seven RBIs in a game. The last to do it was John Olerud in 2003.
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