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Mike Zunino’s first full season in the big leagues has been typical for any young talented player with limited professional experience. The peaks are breathtaking and inspiring for Mariners’ fans, while the valleys are longer than expected and a reminder of just how much he was rushed into his current situation.
His batting average has been flirting with the Mendoza line (.212) for much of the season. He’s a free swinger with as many hit by pitches (11) as he does walks (11). He also strikes out at a rate of once in every three at bats.
But when the powerful young catcher gets a hold of a pitch and hits it squarely, it’s going somewhere – usually a long ways from home plate.
Cleveland reliever Bryan Cook saw it firsthand on Thursday and could only stare in frustrated disbelief.
With Kyle Seager on first in the top of the eighth, Zunino crushed a 2-0 cut fastball from Cook over the wall in left field at Progressive Field to provide the go-ahead runs in the Mariners’ 6-5 comeback win over the Indians. Seattle (56-52) won its first series since the Oakland series before the all-star break.
“I went up with a plan looking for that cutter and I was able to get it,” Zunino said.
It was the second time in three games that Zunino sent a line drive just over the 18-foot wall. This one gave him the team lead in homers with 17.
“It’s a short porch there, I’m just happy to get them over,” he said.
For manager Lloyd McClendon, there is an understanding for patience with Zunino’s lack of minor league experience (96 games, 419 plate appearances) and his accelerated path the big leagues.
“We all know he swings and misses and he’s young kid and he’s still learning,” McClendon said. “He’s dangerous because he’s so strong. And if you make a mistake he’ll make you pay for it.”
His teammates are amazed by his maturity and early success.
“I couldn’t imagine coming up as quick as he did, it’s crazy,” said Dustin Ackley, who played in 268 minor league games before his call-up. “For him to be putting up the numbers he has is remarkable, and for him to be playing gold glove caliber defense is just crazy to think about.”
To Zunino it’s just another step. He despises the slumps but he understands they happen.
“I feel like I’ve improved from the beginning of the year and that’s all I’m trying to do,” he said. “It’s just a big learning process.”
After Zunino gave Seattle the lead, Brandon Maurer worked a 1-2-3 eighth inning and Fernando Rodney closed out the game with a scoreless ninth for his 30th save.
The normally unflappable Mariners’ bullpen had been in line for the loss.
Charlie Furbush put the first hitters he faced on base to start the seventh. McClendon called on Danny Farquhar to figure a way out of the jam. But he couldn’t. Carlos Santana punched a 1-2 fastball up the middle to score Ramirez for a 5-4 lead.
Things only got worse for the Mariners. Lonnie Chisenhall hit a line drive back toward the mound striking Farquhar in the bicep of his throwing arm. He scrambled off the mound to pick up the ball and get Chisenhall out at first. But after meeting with the trainers, he left the game.
“He’s fine,” McClendon said. “I didn’t want to take any chances.”
Joe Beimel came on and was able to get the Mariners out of the inning without any more runs scoring.
The Mariners were behind almost immediately. Jason Kipnis led off the bottom of the first with a double off of Seattle starter Chris Young. He later scored on Michael Brantley’s single up the middle.
After getting shutout and dominated the night before by Corey Kluber, the Mariners offense came to life against Cleveland starter Zach McAllister. Kendrys Morales reached on a pop up double to left field and eventually scored on Logan Morrison’s deep fly ball to right field to tie the game at 1-1.
Seattle took the lead in the third. Ackley continued his torrid July, belting a two-run homer to right-center. His first since May 11 – 234 plate appearances.
“I think you’ll see it occasionally,” Ackley said of his power. “It’s streaky. That’s the way power sometimes.”
Chris Taylor followed with a single and Robinson Cano plated him, lining the 400th double of his career down the right field line to make it 4-1.
But Young couldn’t hold the lead and gave it back in the bottom of third. He gave up a two-run homer to Kipnis, followed by a triple to Brantley, who would score on sac fly to make it 4-4.
“The guys picked me up,” Young said. “I wasn’t sharp tonight. I fell behind too many hitters. I just trying to compete and find a way.”
Young lasted just 5 1/3 innings, giving up the four runs on seven hits with two walks and a strikeout.
“He didn’t have his best stuff,” McClendon said. “He’s gutsy though. He gave us everything he had till he ran out of gas.”