Echoing Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais, Pat Listach still believes Mike Zunino’s best baseball days are ahead of him.
Which is understandable. The Tacoma Rainiers manager had a front-row seat to Zunino’s reinvention attempt in 2016, when he hit .286 with 17 home runs, 57 RBI and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .898 in 327 plate appearances.
So as the 26-year-old catcher begins another stint in Triple-A — he was optioned to Tacoma on Friday after struggling through the season’s first month with the Mariners — he does so backed by Listach’s confidence.
Zunino was slated to bat fifth as Tacoma’s designated hitter in its Tuesday night game against the New Orleans Baby Cakes at Cheney Stadium.
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“It’s not regimented out, exactly, how often he’s going to play,” Listach said before the game. “I expect he wants to play every day, so he’ll catch some, DH some, and if he does get a day off, I’m sure he’ll pinch hit that day.”
The Mariners hoped they would see a different Zunino this year after he spent much of last season tweaking his swing in the minors. He was more selective in Tacoma, walking 35 times in 79 games under the tutelage of then-Rainiers hitting coach Scott Brosius. That was after a miserable 2015 season in which he batted .174 with 132 strikeouts and 21 walks in 112 games with the Mariners.
But when the 2017 season began, the improvements weren’t there. In 24 games and 80 plate appearances with the Mariners this year, Zunino managed only a .167 batting average with 30 strikeouts and six walks. The former first-round pick hit five doubles and zero home runs.
Listach is keeping the faith based partially on the promise he witnessed last season in Tacoma.
“Obviously, the numbers were there,” Listach said. “The power numbers were there. The walks were there. The on-base percentage was there. So he’s got to get back to that point again.
“He hasn’t had a whole lot of at-bats, but the way the big-league team started off, they needed production right away, and you can’t wait for another 120, 130, 140 at-bats. You’ve got to get production. So we’re here to get him right as quick as we can.”
Servais said last week that he doesn’t expect Zunino to be in Tacoma long, and that “his approach is good, but he’s got some issues mechanically with his swings.”
Listach said Zunino was working on drills in the batting cage on Monday, sitting out Tacoma’s series-opening victory over New Orleans. He did more drill work before Tuesday’s game.
“We all know it’s in there. No one’s giving up on him,” Listach said. “There’s too much talent there. He can do a lot of good things on the baseball field. We’ve just got to get him back to being consistent.”
The Rainiers are off Wednesday before continuing their current homestand on Thursday with the first game of a four-game series against Round Rock at 7:05 p.m.
Right-hander Sam Gaviglio (2-3, 3.31 ERA) is scheduled to pitch for the Rainiers against right-hander Eddie Gamboa (2-2, 5.51) for the Express.
The game can be heard on 850-AM.