Special to Gatorsports.com
(UPDATED, June 8) SEATTLE — After a brief demotion to the minor leagues, Mike Zunino appears to have regained his hitting stroke – and then some.
The Seattle catcher and former standout at the University of Florida hit his first grand slam and drove in a career-high seven runs to power the Mariners to a 9-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday night.
Zunino, sent to Triple-A Tacoma for two weeks in May after struggling offensively, hit a two-run double in the second, an RBI single in the fourth and capped a five-run fifth with his slam that put the Mariners up 9-1.
“There’s a level of confidence and it’s much needed,” said Zunino, who had five RBIs in 103 at-bats before Saturday. “And now I can just sort of look for my pitch now and attack it. I don’t have to worry about where my body is or doing anything like that. It’s just nice to step in the box and feel like you can hit.”
Mariners manager Scott Servais is encouraged with Zunino’s production.
“It was a good sign when he hit that ball to right-center to start off, a big double early in the game,” Servais said. “It just got better after that.”
Zunino’s blast into the upper deck in left was estimated at 441 feet.
“I’d seen all of his pitches already in the zone and I was just able to get that splitter up,” said Zunino, who was hitting .167 when he was sent down, but has raised his average to .206. “I just didn’t try to do too much. I was just trying to drive the ball and I was able to get a good pitch.”
Zunino picked up two more RBIs in Seattle’s win Sunday. Zunino, a .196 career hitter who had a career-high seven RBIs on Saturday, is hitting .308 since being recalled from the minors on May 22 and leads the team with 13 RBIs during that span.
“Kind of the new Z, the way he’s approaching things,” Servais said.
Zunino’s retooled swing following a demotion to the minors paid its biggest dividend yet for the surging Mariners.
Zunino hit his second homer of the game with two outs in the ninth inning, a two-run shot that gave the Mariners a 6-5 comeback win over the Minnesota Twins on Wednesday night.
“Really excited for Mike Zunino. Everybody knows the ability he has, but to try to see him get the performance,” Servais said. “He’s worked his tail off. He’s bought into kind of the new swing mechanics and he should, because he’s getting great results right now.”
Zunino’s early-season struggles resulted in a two-week stint at Triple-A Tacoma. But he’s hitting .302 with four home runs, four doubles and 15 RBIs in 13 games since being recalled May 22.
“That’s sort of the swing that the last month I’ve been trying to get to,” Zunino said. “Obviously, the pitch is going to dictate where you hit it. But, got into a spot with a guy that you know has a good sinker and he likes to stay away and I was just trying to elevate it. I was able to get that pitch and stay inside it and just drive it that way.”