SEATTLE — The next stage in what the Mariners have consistently called a development year for catcher Mike Zunino will take place in the big leagues.
The Mariners recalled Zunino from Triple-A Tacoma prior to Thursday’s series opener against Baltimore to serve as their backup catcher after placing Steve Clevenger on the 15-day disabled list because of a broken bone in his right hand.
Zunino, 25, returns after batting .282 for the Rainiers with 15 homers and 51 RBIs in 69 games. He also compiled a .366 on-base percentage and a .516 slugging percentage in 287 plate appearances.
"I feel I’ve definitely grown as a player. I’ve definitely learned a lot of things about myself as a player and a hitter — and as a person, too. So it’s nice to get this opportunity and, hopefully, be able to run with it."
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The Mariners viewed Zunino as a long-term cornerstone after selecting him with the third overall pick in the 2012 draft. He reached the majors less than a year later and spent the previous two-plus years as the club’s starting catcher.
But the club’s new administration under general manager Jerry Dipoto cited Zunino’s offensive struggles — a .193/.252/.353 career slash — as proof that he required an extended remedial tour in the minors to hone his skills.
The Mariners further emphasized that point by signing veteran free-agent Chris Iannetta in November to be their starting catcher and acquiring Clevenger from Baltimore in a December trade to serve as Iannetta’s backup.
"I knew (Zunino) was going to be back at some point," manager Scott Servais said. "Was it going to be June 1, July 1 or August 1? Sometimes situations and circumstances dictate that. That’s what happened here, but he’s earned it.
"The reports (say) the at-bats have been better. He’s been a productive hitter. He’s controlling the strike zone better. So he was the guy to go to."
The Mariners opted to recall Zunino over several other options. Double-A Jackson catcher Steven Baron is also on the 40-man roster and could have been summoned without another corresponding move.
Baron was instead promoted to Tacoma to replace Zunino.
The Mariners bypassed veteran catchers Rob Brantly or Jesus Sucre, who are both at Tacoma, although promoting either one would have required a corresponding space-clearing move on the 40-man roster.
Clevenger suffered a broken third metacarpal — the bone in the hand below the knuckle of the middle finger — when hit on the knuckle Wednesday by a foul off the bat of Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen.
Plans call for Clevenger to undergo surgery Friday with the expectation that he could return to duty before the season ends.
"It was a clean break," he said. "Nothing shattered. (The doctor) said the quickest way for me to get back on the field was the have this surgery. It’s not season-ending, but we don’t really have a time frame.
"He said it’s going to depend on how quickly I progress."
Clevenger, 30, batted .221 with a .303 OBP, one homer and seven RBIs in 22 games as the club’s backup catcher.
Reliever Tom Wilhelmsen is also back with the Mariners after spending less than one week at Tacoma, where he allowed one run over three innings in two appearances.
"His velocity came up in the last outing," Servais said. "He was very sharp. I think it was two innings, 16 pitches."
Wilhelmsen replaces right-hander Donn Roach in the bullpen although, for paperwork purposes, he is actually replacing Clevenger on the roster.
Optioned players must remain in the minors for 10 days unless they replace a player who is put on the disabled list. Technically, that means Zunino replaced Roach on the roster.
Roach, 26, gave up four runs and six hits in 3 1/3 innings over three appearances since his June 24 promotion from Tacoma.
The Mariners signed Wilhelmsen, 32, on June 21 after he became a free agent by refusing to accept a minor-league assignment by Texas. He spent the previous six years with the Mariners before a Nov. 16, 2015 trade sent him to the Rangers.
Plans call for right-hander Felix Hernandez to throw another bullpen workout Friday as the next step in his recovery from a strained right calf muscle.
Barring setbacks, Hernandez is scheduled to pitch in a simulated game in a few days, followed by two minor-league starts on a rehabilitation assignment before rejoining the active roster after the All-Star break.
"That’s what we’re looking at right now," Servais said. "It’s really important that he stays disciplined to the program."
Hernandez hasn’t pitched since May 27
GUTIERREZ FINDING FORM
Veteran outfielder Franklin Gutierrez continues to wash away the sour taste of a slow start. He entered Thursday on a .313 surge since May 21 with eight homers and 20 RBIs in that 27-game span, which includes 19 starts.
As always with Gutierrez, the questions center on his health; his battles with ankylosing spondylitis (which affects the joints in the spine and pelvis) and irritable bowel syndrome require constant attention.
"I’m all right," he said. "I’m fine. I’m preparing myself pretty much every day for any opportunity I can get. I’m just getting comfortable right now."
Gutierrez got off to a great start in spring training before contracting a severe case of the flu. He missed a week and struggled upon his return — getting just two hits in 18 at-bats — and those struggles carried into the regular season.
Through his first 25 games, Gutierrez was batting just .176 with one homer and five RBIs before a three-run homer on May 21 at Cincinnati seemed to throw the switch.
"We’re certainly a much different lineup against left-handers," Servais said, "when Guti is swinging the bat well."
GOLDEN SPIKES WINNER
Short-A Everett outfielder Kyle Lewis, the Mariners’ first-round pick in the recent MLB Draft, is this year’s recipient of the Golden Spikes Award as college baseball’s top player.
Lewis, 20, batted .395 with 20 home runs this season as a junior at Mercer University. The 39th annual award is sponsored by Major League Baseball and presented in partnership with the Rod Dedeaux Foundation.
Tacoma placed two players on the Pacific Coast League roster for the Triple-A All-Star Game on July 13 at BB&T Ballpark in Charlotte, N.C.
Outfielder Stefen Romero and right-handed pitcher Blake Parker were elected to the PCL squad for its annual game against the International League all-stars. The 2017 Triple-A All-Star Game will be played at Cheney Stadium.
Romero, 27, is batting .336 with nine home runs and 43 RBIs through 56 games. Parker, 31, has a 2.15 ERA in 27 games and is perfect in 14 save opportunities.
Lo-A Clinton achieved a milestone Wednesday with a 6-2 victory at Wisconsin (Brewers). The LumberKings improved to 46-31 and matched their victory total from last year’s 46-93 disaster.
Clinton clinched a wild-card berth in the Midwest League playoffs by finishing the first half at 39-31 and is on a 7-0 run to open the second half.
***Major League Baseball replaced injured Double-A Jackson pitcher Dylan Unsworth, 23, on the World roster for the All-Star Futures Game in San Diego. Lefty Angel Perdomo, a Toronto prospect, will replace Unsworth.
A right-hander, Unsworth is a South African native who hasn’t pitched since June 7 because of a hamstring injury. He was 3-1 with a 1.16 ERA in nine starts before he got hurt.
The Mariners are expected to sign Venezuelan shortstop Alexander Campos when the international signing period begins Saturday, according to Baseball America. The magazine ranks Campos, 16, as its No. 49 international prospect.
"He’s a plus runner with a quick first step and good footwork at shortstop," the magazine reports. "Campos has a level, inside-out swing with gap power, occasionally putting a surprising charge into the ball for someone his size."
The Mariners were previously linked to Dominican outfielder Luis Veloz, whom Baseball America ranks as the No. 29 prospect.
The international signing period covers players who are not eligible for the MLB Draft — i.e., residents from outside of the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories.
Players must be at least 16 years old when the sign and turn 17 either by Sept. 1 or by the end of their first professional season. They must also register with the MLB Scouting Bureau.
It was 24 years ago Saturday — July 1, 1992 — that the Baseball Club of Seattle, L.P., took control of the Mariners. It is the franchise’s first local ownership group, although it was backed by Japanese-based Nintendo owner Hiroshi Yamauchi.
John Ellis was the new chairman of the board of directors, and Chuck Armstrong became the club president.
The franchise is currently in the process of an internal shakeup in which Nintendo of America will sell a controlling interest to a group headed by John Stanton, a Seattle native who made his fortune in the wireless industry.
That change is contingent on formal approval from Major League Baseball, which is scheduled to review the matter Aug. 16-18 at its owners’ meetings in Houston.
Designated hitter Nelson Cruz and left-handed pitcher Mike Montgomery have birthdays on Saturday. Cruz turns 36, while Montgomery will be 27… online voting to determine the starters for the July 12 game in San Diego ended at 8:59 p.m. on Thursday. The results will be announced July 5 at 4 p.m. Pacific time on ESPN. Second baseman Robinson Cano and Cruz were the only Mariners among the leaders at their positions, but each trailed by a significant amount earlier this week in the most-recent MLB balloting update…
The Mariners and Orioles continue their four-game series at 7:10 p.m. Friday at Safeco Field.
Lefty Wade LeBlanc (0-0, 0.00) will make his second start since joining the Mariners when he faces Baltimore right-hander Kevin Gausman (1-5, 3.93). LeBlanc pitched six scoreless innings July 24 against St. Louis.
The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on 710 ESPN.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners