By Brent Stecker
The Mariners rolled into Kansas City last weekend as losers of their last two to the lowly San Diego Padres – not exactly the best way to prepare to face a red-hot Royals team that was one game removed from a 10-game win streak.
As we all know now, the Mariners scratched and clawed their way to a three-game sweep that included two ninth-inning rallies and back-to-back 2-1 nail-biting victories. And in those two low-scoring affairs, second-year catcher Mike Zunino had as much to do with the wins as anybody thanks to a homer in each contest.
It’s become a very familiar sight to see Zunino rounding the bases after a moonshot – his nine home runs lead all American League catchers through Sunday – and his power combined with his abilities behind the plate have had a big hand in the Mariners’ success in 2014.
It’s easy to forget that Zunino is still just 23 and only a little over a year removed from his MLB debut on June 12, 2013 – not just because of his production but also because of his maturity level.
That maturity is something Dan Wilson, a Mariners Hall of Famer and arguably the best catcher in franchise history, has seen from Day 1 with Zunino, as he told 710 ESPN Seattle’s “Bob and Groz.”
“One of the things that I noticed even last year when he came up was he plays beyond his years,” Wilson said. “His maturity behind the plate (and) his ability to handle the mental side of catching was very advanced for his age. I think that has continued to get stronger throughout this year.”
Even though Zunino has plenty of natural ability and maturity, he isn’t relying on that alone. As Wilson pointed out, Zunino is putting a lot of hard work into improving his game.
“The other aspects of his game, the blocking, even the throwing to some degree, he has done a tremendous job of putting in a lot of hard work and has improved those areas tremendously,” Wilson said. “His bat has come around, especially lately with a couple of home runs (and) key hits.
“He’s a guy that mentally I think had the tools there ready to go last year, and physically he’s added a lot of great things this year behind the plate, and the mental side for him continues to get better and get stronger.”
The hope is that Zunino’s bat will continue to progress, as while the nine home runs are nice, his other numbers – .225 batting average, .283 on-base percentage, 74 strikeouts to just nine walks – have plenty of room for improvement. Wilson suspects it will.
“I see Mike Zunino really developing into a really great young catcher, and with his durability back there, his age, you know he could be the catcher for a long, long time,” Wilson said. “And I tell you what, he’s gonna be quite the player before it’s all said and done.”