SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as 99¢ for the first month
SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as 99¢ for the first month

Cape Coral natives Shane McClanahan, Mike Zunino set to make World Series debuts for Rays

Adam Regan
Fort Myers News-Press

When Cape Coral native Mike Zunino takes the field Tuesday in Game 1 of the World Series it’s inevitable that he’ll reflect on his 8-year journey through Major League Baseball. It’s one that saw him drafted third overall in 2012 by Seattle, rushed to the big leagues a season later and struggle at times at the plate before being given up on and traded by the Mariners.

Zunino, however, chooses to focus the team that believed in him following a rocky start to his career.

And he continues to reward the Tampa Bay Rays this postseason with timely hitting and his handling of its strong pitching staff. The Mariner High School graduate and Shane McClanahan, a Cape Coral High product, snapped Lee County’s 28-year drought of not having one of its own play in the Fall Classic.

Tampa Bay Rays catcher Mike Zunino (celebrates their victory in Game 7 of a baseball American League Championship Series, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, in San Diego. The Rays defeated the Astros 4-2 to win the series 4-3 games. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Zunino’s gratitude has shown through during the playoffs where he’s hit four home runs, matching his regular-season total and coming within one homer of tying former Cleveland Indian Sandy Alomar Jr.’s record of most by a catcher in a single postseason.

None was bigger than his solo shot in the second inning of Game 7 of the American League Championship Series that ended up serving as the game-winning run in the Rays’ 4-2 win over the Houston Astros.

Zunino is a part of a Rays roster that has a modest $28.3 million payroll but said manager Kevin Cash and the team’s front office’s ability to fit all of the pieces together and focusing on each players’ strengths have been the difference.

“I think the ability to allow us to be ourselves,” Zunino said Saturday when asked what has carried the Rays to the World Series. “We’re not trying to fit into a role, we’re not trying to be people that we’re not trying to be. And that is a very, very hard thing to have players feel. Because at some point in your career someone is going to want to put a finger on you as a player. Man, it’s unbelievable from what they said they could see in me coming over from Seattle and just give me an opportunity. I’m grateful to the organization. It makes it much more special that you know there’s a front office and a team that believes in you.”

Lee County hasn’t had a homegrown player take the field in a World Series since North Fort Myers High School graduate Deion Sanders hit .533 with two doubles and five stolen bases for the Atlanta Braves in the 1992 Fall Classic.

More:Former Mariner High, Gators star Mike Zunino happy to be back playing baseball in Sunshine State

More:MLB: Cape Coral grad Shane McClanahan makes MLB history in Rays' loss to Yanks

Now that Zunino, 29, is there he said the Rays continue to be focused on winning it all. That was apparent Saturday during the celebration of winning the pennant.

“There’s confetti, silly string. I think you’ve seen it. We’ve tried to embrace it for what it’s worth,” said Zunino, who noted MLB rules didn't allow players to pour champagne on each other in the locker room due to COVID-19 restrictions. “But I’ll tell you what, there’s nothing better than popping bottles and wearing some googles and it’s still seeping through there burning the eyes. There’s nothing better than that. But you know what, there’s one time we get to do that this year and that’s if we win the World Series. Guys have that in mind.”

Former Mariner High baseball coach and current athletic director Steve Larsen, who coached Zunino, wasn’t surprised by that reaction.

“He’s been at the highest level. He’s been to a couple of College World Series,” Larsen said of the former Florida Gators standout. “He knows it’s not over. They have a singular purpose, to win a World Series.”

And the staff at Mariner who remember Zunino’s time with the Tritons can’t get enough of this postseason.

“The adults on the staff who are still here speak extremely highly of him as an athlete and a student,” Larsen said, adding that Zunino was a once-in-generation-type player in Lee County.

In the offseason, the Rays had to decide whether to let budding star catcher Travis d’Arnaud go in free agency. The front office again put its faith in Zunino and d’Arnaud found success with the Atlanta Braves.

Cash admits he’s asked a lot from his catcher.

“A heavy, heavy workload. He’s handled our pitchers as well as we can ask anybody,” Cash said. “His bat came to life. He was just huge for us. Whether it was a homer, whether it was an RBI single, whether it was getting on base, a bunt or a sac fly, he really stepped up for us. We’re all really pumped for Mike Zunino.”

While Zunino may find himself approaching his peak years, McClanahan, the Rays left-handed reliever, is just getting started. During Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the New York Yankees, he became the first pitcher to make his major league debut in the postseason.

The first-round draft pick’s quick progression through the minor leagues has been a hot topic in a group text chat between Cape Coral High coach Mike Gorton and two of his former pitching coordinators, Robbie Lawrence and Jake Stevens, who worked with McClanahan during his prep career.

None of the coaches were surprised McClanahan was added to the postseason roster as major league clubs tend to find room in the bullpen for flamethrowers like McClanahan, who tops out at 100 miles per hour on the radar gun.

Oct 5, 2020; San Diego, California, USA; Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Shane McClanahan, a Cape Coral High graduate, pitches against the New York Yankees during the ninth inning in game one of the 2020 ALDS at Petco Park.

“We didn’t want to take too much credit. I said that only God could have him throwing 100 miles an hour,” Gorton joked. "His stuff is so good. It’s electric. The guys sitting 96 to 100 miles per hour, his off-speed stuff is so good. He really has a high upside. You know no matter how much confidence you have though you know they’re going to be nervous in that spot.”

In his debut, McClanahan issued a walk and got the final out of the top of the ninth in the 9-3 loss.

"There were a little nerves, but once you’re on the mound, it’s business as usual,'' McClanahan told the Tampa Bay Times. "I’ve got a job to do and that was getting my team out of the inning.''

The 23-year-old rookie has pitched in three games this postseason, allowing four earned runs with four strikeouts in 3⅓ innings.

Lawrence, a former baseball operations intern who worked in the clubhouse for the Rays before returning to Cape to coach, said it seemed like McClanahan was destined to star for the Rays. 

During McClanahan’s freshman season, Lawrence brought a pair of former Rays pitcher J.P. Howell’s pitching cleats with a lefty toe guard. McClanahan was the only lefty on the staff and wore the cleats the entire season.

His former Cape coaches wished him all the best whether he pitches an inning in the World Series or 10. They advised him to take in the whole experience.

“Keep competing and embracing the moment,” Lawrence said. “You never know if you’ll get back to that moment.”