Sports

John McGrath: Time for Jack Zduriencik to back up his tough talk

As the Seattle Mariners were sitting through a two-hour rain delay Thursday, my idle mind turned to Detroit, where the Tigers were facing the Houston Astros.

I was inclined to look at an Astros defeat as something beneficial to the Mariners, who trailed Houston by eight games in the American League West. But then it occurred to me: Barring an Astros free fall — and let’s be honest, this is a hope now rather than a probability — the Mariners appear destined to play out the schedule as fringe wild card contenders.

The Memorial Day weekend seems like a premature juncture for a team to reconfigure its long-term ambitions, especially a team that broke spring training with a legitimate belief it could improve on last year’s 87-victory total. But this season has been underscored by a frustrating vibe best described by 30 hours.

That’s how much time Lloyd McClendon’s team has spent over .500. Thirty hours after beating the Los Angeles Angeles in the April 6 afternoon opener, the Mariners lost the following night, foreshadowing a seven-week struggle to achieve the literal definition of mediocrity.

Two four-game losing skids, one four-game roll, lots of treadmill tedium between the streaks. The 5-4 defeat the Mariners suffered Thursday at Baltimore provided a microcosmic sample of 2015: Down 4-1 before the tarp was unrolled, rolled back up and unrolled once again, the visitors rallied, and had every chance to produce the kind of valiant comeback victory that can jump-start a team apparently allergic to momentum.

Bases loaded with nobody out in the seventh, bases loaded once again in the eighth, and all the Mariners could do was coax a walk for the seventh-inning run that tied the score at 4.

When general manager Jack Zduriencik made the “nobody’s on scholarship” remarks regarding his disappointment with the Mariners, I assumed substantial roster moves were imminent. Zduriencik followed through on his tough-love assessment, offered after a May 6 defeat, by trading minor league pitcher Yoervis Medina for backup catcher Welington Castillo.

Hoo boy.

Outfielder Dustin Ackley was hitting .182, with a .211 on-base percentage, when Zduriencik sounded off. Over the 12 games since then, Ackley has managed to fatten those numbers to .184 and .226. If the 205-pound Ackley sustains this pace of incremental improvement at the speed of a tortoise, there’s a very good chance he could be hitting his weight by Labor Day.

Mike Zunino was hitting .177 with a .238 on-base percentage when Zduriencik sounded off. Since then the catcher has struck out 15 times without a walk, helping explain why his primary offensive numbers have regressed to .175 and .234.

Those more learned than I am in the art of catching insist Zunino is adept at framing: converting borderline pitches from balls into strikes by the subtle placement of mitt. Furthermore, I am told, Zunino’s high baseball IQ has earned him the trust of pitchers, who rarely shake off any sign he puts down.

Framing borderline pitches, and mastering the chess-match battle that flummoxes hitters awaiting a fastball and end up taking a breaking ball — or vise versa — are wonderful attributes for a catcher.

But the Mariners didn’t identify Zunino as the third overall selection of the 2012 draft because of his penchant for framing pitches and calling a good game. Mike Zunino was taken at No. 3 on the premise he’d combine those sound defensive skills with an ability to swing a bat that occasionally makes contact with a ball.

Zunino, a right-handed hitter with conspicuous pull power to left, supposedly devoted time during the winter working on a go-with-the-flow philosophy, driving fastballs to right-center. It’s an effective approach: Edgar Martinez used it to become one of the dominant right-handed hitters of his generation. But Zunino either has forgotten his lessons or never grasped them in the first place.

If it sounds as if suggesting Zunino is solely responsible for his team’s 18-22 record, forgive me. During a game Thursday that pretty much encapsulated the 2015 Mariners season, he never left the dugout.

Zunino’s failure to put a bat on the ball is not the cause of the Mariners’ woes, merely a symptom, along with Ackley’s painfully overwrought determination to wait for the perfect pitch and, for that matter, Taijuan Walker’s reaction upon throwing a perfect pitch not acknowledged by the umpire.

Walker placed a 2-2 pitch on the outside corner of home plate Tuesday night, turning Travis Snider’s at-bat in the fourth inning into toast. If legendary corner-painter Greg Maddux had thrown that pitch, it’s strike three.

This just in: Walker is not Maddux, and the 2-2 pitch that should have been strike three became a 3-2 pitch that preceded a leadoff walk. Walker, given a 4-1 lead, didn’t survive the inning.

A big league pitcher unraveled by an umpire’s arbitrary interpretation of the strike zone in the fourth inning of a May 19th game doesn’t belong in the big leagues. Nor does a starting outfielder hitting .184, or a starting catcher hitting .177.

It’s time for Jack Zduriencik to clench his fist, and back up the strong words directed to the sleepy hollow team that didn’t hear them.

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