Catcher Mike Zunino enters the season’s final weekend locked in an unexpected, but not unfamiliar, battle with the Mendoza Line.
While he contributed a key RBI double that helped the Mariners regain the momentum in Wednesday’s victory at Houston, Zunino production plummeted over the previous five-plus weeks.
“He was in such a good spot,” manager Scott Servais said. “Consistent at-bats, getting hits and taking his walks. I think he may be expanding the strike zone a little bit. There are some pitches that he should be hitting that he’s not.
“He’s chasing some off the edges, which he wasn’t doing earlier.”
Zunino batted .280 through his first 26 games after returning from Triple-A Tacoma. While he had 22 strikeouts in 91 plate appearances, Zunino also had nine homers, 21 RBIs, a .393 on-base percentage and a .707 slugging percentage.
In short, Zunino appeared to be “fixed” after a batting a combined .193 in 295 games over the three previous seasons. Then the old Zunino return. He is batting .139 over his last 25 games with a .244 OBP and a .241 slugging percentage.
Perhaps more alarming — Servais’ word — is Zunino has 37 strikeouts in 90 plate appearances. His overall average, entering Thursday, was .208 — just eight points above the ignominious Mendoza Line.
“I think I tried to do more than I was doing,” Zunino said. “Expanding the zone. When I came back (from Tacoma), I had some success. You want to make everything better and continue to get better.
“I made some tweaks that sent me in the wrong direction. So it’s just a matter of getting that turned around. It’s a work-in-progress, but I do have something that I want to go back to.”
The Mendoza Line is a .200 batting average. It is named after Mario Mendoza, a light-hitting infielder who played for three clubs, including the Mariners, in a nine-year career from 1974-82. He batted less than .200 in five seasons.
Club officials leave little doubt that they view Zunino, despite his current slide, as a long-term fit at catcher. The decision in the coming off-season will be to determine whether his backup is currently in the organization.
“He has done a fantastic job defensively,” Servais said. “I think that goes overlooked. What he’s done for our pitching, with his (pitch) framing. His throwing was off for a little bit, but he’s made an adjustment there.”
Zunino played his 50th game Thursday but already rates at plus-7 in runs saved above average in computations by Baseball Info Solutions. With that defense, Servais said, Zunino’s offensive contributions don’t need to be eye-popping.
“The key to Mike,” Servais said, “will be if he continues to take his walks. He’s always going to strike out. That’s part of it. But if he can take his walks, he’s certainly got plenty of power, he can be a very productive everyday catcher.
“Go look at what everyday catchers are hitting in this league. You don’t have to hit .255. You can hit .225 or .230 with (superior) defense — but you’ve got to get on base.”
FIVE TIMES SIX
Credit third baseman Kyle Seager with consistency.
He has a career-high 30 homers this season, and he hit five of them in each of the season’s six months.
Seager’s runs scored and runs batted in are also remarkably similar. His monthly breakdown on runs scored: 13 in April, 17 in May, 15 in June, 14 in July, 16 in August and (through Wednesday) 12 in September.
His RBI breakdown: 13, 20, 17, 17, 17, 19 and (through Wednesday) 13.
“I made the comment to him a couple of months ago,” Servais said, “that the squeaky wheel usually gets the oil. Well, he’s not a squeaky wheel. He’s not a high-maintenance guy.
“He’s a guy who you just write his name in the lineup, and you kind of forget about him. You take him for granted. He’s so valuable to have in your lineup.”
An unrelated Seager note: He has nine three-run homers this season, which matches two other players for the most in the majors. Also with nine: Colorado third baseman Nelson Arenado and Detroit outfielder Justin Upton.
PLANNING FOR POSTSEASON
The Mariners are thinking positive when it comes to postseason.
Individual-game tickets for a possible American League Wild Card game and two possible AL Division Series games at Safeco Field will go on sale at noon on Friday.
Tickets can be purchased at at www.Mariners.com/tickets and by phone at 888-732-4487. If and when the dates become firm, they will also be available at Ticketmaster outlets, Mariners Team Stores and the Safeco Field box office.
Subject to other factors, such as play-in games, the Wild Card game is Tuesday; and the two possible LDS games at Safeco Field are Oct. 9-10.
The Mariners began play Thursday trailing Baltimore by two games in the race for the AL’s final wild-card berth. They also trailed Detroit by one game. All three clubs had four games remaining.
Here are the remaining schedules, starting Friday, for the primary five teams battling for the AL’s two wild-card berths. Records do not include Thursday’s results:
Toronto (87-71): Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Boston.
Baltimore (86-72): Friday, Saturday and Sunday at New York Yankees.
Detroit (85-73): Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Atlanta.
Mariners (84-74): Friday, Saturday and Sunday vs. Oakland.
Houston (83-76): Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Los Angels Angels.
Designated hitter Nelson Cruz is the Mariners’ recipient of the Heart and Hustle Award, which is picked by the MLB Players Alumni Association. He will receive the award Friday from hitting coach Edgar Martinez in a pre-game ceremony.
The award seeks to recognize players who “demonstrate a passion for the game of baseball and best embody the values, spirit and traditions of the game.”
Cruz was cited for serving as host for the alumni association’s Legends for Youth clinic near his hometown in the Dominican Republic in conjunction with his Boomstick23 Foundation.
The overall winner will be announced Nov. 15 at the 17th annual Legends for Youth Dinner in New York.
Short-A Everett outfielder Kyle Lewis, the Mariners’ first-round pick in this year’s MLB Draft, was picked by Baseball America as the No. 2 prospect in the Northwest League despite suffering a knee injury that limited him to 30 games.
Lewis, 21, underwent surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament as well as torn medial and lateral meniscuses. He isn’t expected to to return to action until some point in the 2017 season.
“It was severe enough to temper some enthusiasm for his future,” Baseball America reported. “While on the field, Lewis showed solid instincts in center field as well as a plus arm.
“Evaluators who saw him early noticed he had trouble with fastballs above the hands — but once he got acclimated the results were spectacular.”
Everett shortstop Bryson Brigman, a third-round pick in June, was ranked as the league’s No. 15 prospect.
“Brigman showed a little bit of everything in the (Northwest League),” Baseball America reported, “but lacked a standout tool. He showed an experienced eye at the plate and an ability to spray line drives around the diamond.”
The magazine also speculated that Brigman, 21, might need to shift to second base in the future because of “below-average arm.”
Hi-A Bakersfield, the defunct former Mariners affiliate, was picked as the California League franchise of the year after showing a 21.5-percent increase in tickets sold and a 46.8-percent increase in in-ballpark revenue.
Bakersfield general manager Mike Candela was picked as the California League executive of the year.
The Blaze folded after the season. The Mariners shifted their Hi-A affiliation to Modesto in the same league after buying a controlling interest in the franchise.
FAN APPRECIATION NIGHT
The Mariners are holding their annual Fan Appreciation Night in conjunction with Friday’s game against the Athletics.
Activities include “drawings for dozens of prizes” throughout the game. Team posters will also be distributed, and the 7th Annual Fan of the Year Awards will be presented.
There will also be a game, which starts at 7:10 p.m.
It was 40 years ago Friday — Sept. 30, 1976 — that the Mariners acquired the first player in franchise history when they purchased the contract of right-handed pitcher Dave Johnson from Baltimore.
Johnson, then 28, never pitched for the Mariners. He opened the 1977 season at Triple-A San Jose before getting traded to Minnesota on May 2 in a cash transaction.
For his career, Johnson was 4-10 with a 4.64 ERA in 53 games, including seven starts, over parts of four seasons with Baltimore and Minnesota.
Outfielder Franklin Gutierrez is available for duty even though he still sports a cyborg look because of a broken blood vessel in his eye. Manager Scott Servais said: “I know it doesn’t look good, but he says he’s seeing the ball OK.”…outfielder Seth Smith turns 34 on Friday. He shares a birthday with outfielder Daniel Robertson, who spent most of this season at Triple-A Tacoma. Robertson is 31…Ex-Mariners first baseman Jesus Montero, now with Toronto, received a 50-game suspension without pay after testing positive for dimethylbutylamine, a stimulant. Montero is currently on the Triple-Buffalo roster, which means his suspension will begin at the start of next season.
The Mariners and Athletics continue their three-game series at 7:10 p.m. Friday at Safeco Field. Right-hander Taijuan Walker (7-11 with a 4.35 ERA) will face Oakland right-hander Raul Alcantara (1-2, 5.75).
The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on the Mariners Radio Network, which includes 710-AM.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners