Mike Zunino spent his off day in Seattle on Thursday scooting around town, savoring what he called the best summer climate in the country and eating at a favorite sushi place.
Then on Friday, Zunino headed to his old stomping grounds of the past six years, give or take a few remedial trips to Tacoma. Only this time, he turned left instead of right upon entering T-Mobile Park from Edgar Martinez Drive.
The visiting clubhouse felt vaguely familiar. After talking it over with clubhouse attendants Jeff Bopp and Billy Sepich, Zunino remembered that he participated in an autograph session on the visiting side in 2013 during his very first Mariners’ Fan Fest.
But Zunino is a Tampa Bay Ray now, the first shoe to drop in what would turn out to be the Great Migration out of Seattle after the 2018 season. He was traded along with pitcher Michael Plassmeyer for outfielders Mallex Smith and Jake Fraley on Nov. 8 – a move Zunino didn’t see coming but proved fortuitous in bringing him back to his home state – and to winning baseball.
“Obviously, I never thought I’d be traded,’’ he said. “It was a surprise for me early in the offseason, but a blessing at the same time with the birth of our first child (son Rhett, born in April).”
The Mariners were coming off an 89-win season. But Zunino said that when he talked to Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais directly after the trade, “I think they had a good idea of where they wanted to go.”
We know now the Mariner destination: Stepback City. Later in November, James Paxton was traded to the Yankees and Alex Colome to the White Sox. On Dec. 3, Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz went to the Mets, and on the same day Jean Segura and Juan Nicasio were dealt to the Phillies. Not too long after, Nelson Cruz signed with the Twins.
In other words, the fabric of the most recent Mariner era had been very deliberately torn apart, with the hope that the corresponding influx of mostly younger talent (or older players acquired for the purpose of dealing them for prospects) would take them, eventually, to greater heights.
“It’s never easy when you have to go make those decisions, but I think they’re doing what’s best for this organization,’’ Zunino said. “You respect that. I’m just happy how they treated me. They were always open and honest with me. The organization has treated me top of the line.”
Zunino finds himself in a prosperous situation in Tampa Bay. While the Mariners have sunk deep into the AL West cellar, the Rays came to Seattle with a half-game lead over Oakland for the second wild-card berth in the American League. They’ve held a playoff spot for 120 of 134 days this season, and Zunino could get his first taste of postseason action.
But like many of the veteran players traded by the Mariners in their purge, Zunino has struggled this season. The offensive woes that plagued virtually his entire Mariners career, save for a torrid stretch in 2017, have continued.
Zunino arrived back in Seattle with a .175 batting average, seven homers and 23 runs batted in in 65 games. Travis D’Arnaud, who was acquired while Zunino was on the disabled list with a quad injury, is now getting the bulk of the catching duties. Zunino has hit .145 in 37 games since coming off the disabled list.
“There’s a bunch of factors that go into that, but at the end of the day, I can control what today brings and continue to work on it,’’ he said. “The last week or so has felt better. You continue to make good strides. It really matters what you do today and the last two months here, and hopefully I can help this team make a push come September.”
Rays manager Kevin Cash praised Zunino for being able to separate his defensive responsibilities from his hitting slump, a trait that was widely admired in Seattle as well. At age 28, with a career average of .204, Zunino is in danger of settling into a permanent backup role despite his entrée into pro ball as a No. 3 overall pick in 2012. But he will nevertheless have a long career based on his leadership and catching skills.
“He’s done a lot of good things for us,’’ Cash said. “I know the offense has not been as he would have liked, or hoped. He got a big home run the other day, and we’re hoping he can finish off strong for us.
“But certainly, you see the presence he has behind the plate. He’s made our staff better, the work that he puts in. And overall I’m impressed with the makeup of the person. It’s not easy to struggle to the extent he has at the plate. But not at any point have we felt that’s come into play with what he does with our pitchers or the defense behind the plate.”
Zunino had a prodigious home run Wednesday against Toronto that Cash said may have been the longest at Tropicana Field this season. It was measured 446 feet to dead center; the manager hopes it unleashes the power that led Zunino to exceed 20 homers three times for the Mariners.
“We saw (Wednesday) what’s in the bat, which a lot of Seattle people have seen for multiple years here,’’ Cash said. “It’s just finding that consistency. Hitting’s tough. He recognizes that. We do. But we’re going to continue to lean on him, because he’s a big part of what we’re doing.”
Meanwhile, Zunino was reveling in his homecoming Friday, though his wife, Alyssa, elected to stay in Florida with the baby.
“That flight has taken a lot out of us a few years in a row now,’’ he said with a smile.
Before the game, Zunino chatted for a long time with Kyle Seager, as well as Mitch Haniger, Daniel Vogelbach and other Mariner personnel.
“It’s always good to see familiar faces,’’ he said.
Indeed, it was good seeing Zunino, one of the most likable players of this or any other Mariner era. Perhaps one day he’ll be remembered as one of the bridges to a new period of prosperity in Seattle.
For now, though, Zunino may be headed for places in October the Mariners can only dream about.