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July 23, 2014 at 11:52 AM

Mariners notebook: Lloyd McClendon defends Mike Zunino

First, some quick business: The Mariners will skip their fifth starter next week because of an off day on Monday. That means Hisashi Iwakuma will get the start on Tuesday, and it also means Taijuan Walker, Wednesday’s starter, will likely be sent back to Class AAA Tacoma after he makes his start.

Zunino still just a ‘puppy’: One of the biggest moments from the Mariners’ 3-1 loss Tuesday to the Mets came in the fifth inning. Dustin Ackley drove in Willie Bloomquist with a double, then reached third on an error.

That brought catcher Mike Zunino to the plate with one out and the Mariners trailing 2-1. Zunino worked the count to 3-0, but he ended up popping out to shallow left field. Ackley remained stranded at third when Endy Chavez grounded out to end the inning.

When asked about Zunino’s approach during that pivotal at-bat, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon used it as an opportunity to defend his young catcher.

“He was trying,” McClendon said, chuckling. “I keep reminding everybody this: Zunino’s just a puppy. He’ll get better with those kinds of things. He’s got a total of 600 at-bats in his professional career.

“I remember having a conversation with Magglio Ordonez one day in Detroit. I said, ‘You come right into the big leagues, and you hit well.’ He said, ‘I had 5,000 at-bats before I got to the big leagues.’ Zunino has 600. We all forget that. Everyone thinks it’s easy. It’s not easy. It’s not that easy to drive in runs. This guy is learning on the job. He’ll get better that stuff. The only way to get better is to fail, and unfortunately it hurts sometimes when you fail.”

McClendon added, “It’s no fault of his, but he had to come to the big leagues because they didn’t have anybody else. And he’s pretty good at his craft. He’s just got to go out and get his experience. And sometimes it’s going to look ugly, but hell I’ve seen veteran guys that can’t get them in from third. He’ll be OK.”

Paxton bounces back fine: The way James Paxton pitched in his rehab start Tuesday for Class AAA Tacoma was important. But just as important, if not more so, for his prospects of returning to the Mariners was how he felt the next day.

“No pain or anything,” Paxton said before Wednesday’s game.

Paxton said he didn’t hold anything back, like he had in some of his previous rehab assignments. He will pitch again for Tacoma on Sunday, but the Mariners haven’t decided what he will do after that. McClendon said Paxton would make at least one more rehab start for Tacoma, but he wasn’t sure if Paxton would need another one after that or if he’d be available to the big-league club.

For his part, Paxton said he needed at least one more rehab start.

“There’s a few things I need to iron out,” he said, “and I definitely need to be executing pitches a little better to pitch in the big leagues again.”

In his second rehab start on Tuesday, Paxton went three innings, gave up three hits, two home runs and two earned runs. He also retired eight of the final nine batters he faced, when he settled into a groove.

“That felt closer to normal for me” Paxton said. “The last two innings were really good. The first inning I was kind of aiming the ball a little bit and crossing my body. I felt like I was just pushing the ball a little bit. And then I just tried to forget about local so much and just try to go after guys like I do when I’m feeling good.”

Pitching depth? The Mariners’ starting pitching depth, a concern at times this season, could possibly be turning into a strength.

Erasmo Ramirez just delivered his best start of the season on Tuesday. Taijuan Walker is scheduled to start Wednesday’s game. James Paxton is a rehab start or two away from joining the Mariners.

Of course, Paxton and Walker have been subject to trade rumors leading up to the trading deadline, but if the Mariners keep all their young arms, an unknown at this point, they could have a number of options to fall back on.

“We’re getting there,” McClendon said. “You never have enough pitching. I know it’s an old cliché, but it’s true. You don’t have enough pitching. What he did last night was big for us because he cleaned up our bullpen. During the course of the year, you’re going to need probably eight or nine starters if you look at the track record of most teams year in and year out. You do go to that seventh or eighth starter a lot. We’re no different.”

 

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