By John Boyle Herald Columnist
TACOMA — A lot has changed for Mike Zunino in the past year.
Since last June, Zunino has become the No. 3 pick in the Major League Baseball draft, played in the College World Series, traveled around the country to collect a number of awards, made his professional debut with the Everett AquaSox, earned a quick promotion to Class AA Jackson, earned an invitation to the Mariners’ 2013 spring training camp, and oh-by-the-way, he got married in October.
Now, after a torrid start to this season with Class AAA Tacoma Rainiers, Zunino is going through yet another first in a year full of them — struggles at the plate. Well OK, that’s not entirely true, Zunino has certainly had a few bad stretches in his baseball career, but after terrorizing pitching in the Northwest League, then continuing to hit in Jackson, he found out in this past week that hitting professional pitching isn’t always going to be easy.
That was hardly the case when, a few games into the season, the only question about Zunino was how long it would be before the Mariners called him up. Five games into his first season in Tacoma, Zunino was hitting .429 with four home runs, three doubles and 16 RBI. Then the bottom fell out. In his five games leading up to Thursday night’s game, however, Zunino had just one hit, a single, and two RBI in his next 19 at bats.
Yet as much fun as everyone was having dreaming about the Mariners’ future while watching Zunino crush baseballs, the recent bump in the road might just be the best thing to happen to the 22-year old catcher. Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge have said repeatedly that young players need to go through struggles and learn how to bounce back, pointing to last season as what they hope was the first of those two steps.
Now, we’ll ignore for a moment the fact that many of the Mariners’ young players have yet to experience the bounce-back portion of that equation, not yet anyway. However, the reasoning is sound, even if things haven’t worked out yet for the likes of Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero.
Baseball, more than any sport, is a game of failure — at least for hitters — and at some point, be it in college, the minor leagues or the big leagues, every hitter, even Hall of Famers, will go through extended periods in which they can’t buy a hit. Knowing how to ride out those struggles and get back on track is as important as anything in baseball, which is what Zunino is hoping to do next.
“There’s always going to be the ups and downs, and it’s good to sort of go through the beginning of the season and figure out what you need to do to get through that,” Zunino said before getting a day off Wednesday. “It’s been a good experience so far.
“When you’re going good, you ride it and sort of take it for what it’s worth for as long as you can, then obviously when you struggle you have to keep working and keep the same mindset. It’s not worth beating up yourself over it, because you’re going to have ups and downs. It’s good to see both sides of it early in the season and figure out what I need to do to give myself the best opportunity to play well every day.”
The past week also might be a blessing in disguise if it quiets down the clamoring for Zunino in a Mariners uniform. A few bad games notwithstanding, it’s clear Zunino isn’t long for the minor leagues. He’s too talented, too mature and too good behind the plate to be kept down for long. Throw in Montero’s early season struggles and it’s easy to see why fans can’t wait to see Zunino at Safeco Field.
And if Zunino’s bat cooling off slows down his rapid rise to Seattle, that could end up being the best thing for him in the long run.
“I’d rather a guy goes through his first adversity here than 30 miles up the road, because that’s a bigger stage,” Rainiers manager Daren Brown said. “And we’re talking about this like he’s going through adversity, but it’s 13 games into the season. For me it’s early, and he’s 10 months removed from playing in college. He’ll let you know on the field when it’s time and he’s figured things out. Most players do.”
That Zunino plays one of the game’s most demanding positions only adds to the fact that the Mariners need to be careful with how quickly they bring him along, no matter how well he plays early in the season, or how much Seattle’s offense struggles to get going.
“He’s learning how to handle pitchers, he’s learning what each guy can do and can’t do,” Brown said. “That’s all part of the process for the position he plays. It’s an important position and it’s probably a little different than any other position for a young kid at this level. He’s handled everything really well, but we’re talking about handling a staff; that’s big anywhere. It’s big here and it’s big in the big leagues.
“It’s a lot of responsibility.”
To his credit, Zunino’s focus right now is on his day-to-day work with the Rainiers, not on his inevitable major league debut. Sure he’s excited about the prospect of putting on a Mariners uniform, and he has to know that conversation is being had amongst fans every time he has a big game. But after such a wild year, Zunino is more than happy to focus on the now, knowing that if he does what he’s capable of doing, another major change in life will come along soon enough.
“It’s really easy to lose focus and get caught up in thinking about that, then you dig yourself in a deeper hole here,” he said. “If you take care of your job here and handle everything here, that ultimately will lead to better things.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.