The standard for birthday celebrations in the Mariners’ clubhouse is suddenly sky high ever since Kyle Seager paid last week for a mariachi band to serenade Leonys Martin through the morning workout.
So what is catcher Mike Zunino expecting later this month when he turns 26?
"I don’t know," he said. "As long as Kyle pays for it, I’ll be happy."
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Zunino has long exhibited a sunny-side personality even in bad times — and these times are anything but. He is again firmly entrenched as the Mariners’ starting catcher and a cornerstone of their future after a roller-coaster 20 months.
"He’s a big part of our team going forward," manager Scott Servais said. "No doubt. Last year, we had a very concise plan on what we were going to do with him to bring him back to this point. We hoped we’d get here.
"Last year at the time, he knew, pretty much, he wasn’t going to make the team. He was open to working on some things. It was most important that he work on his approach to hitting and controlling the strike zone. All of those things took (hold)."
Zunino found a sensei in Triple-A hitting coach Scott Brosius, who returned last year to pro ball after 14 years as a collegiate coach.
"I think the big part was him saying, `Hey, go find yourself. Be who you are,’" Zunino said. "I sort of got away from that. Sometimes, you try to be too good. You try to use the whole field. You try to do too much.
"Sometimes, you just have to stick to your strengths. I think getting back to that really helped. Not trying to be everything. Just sort of being who I am and the best version of that, that was really big. Brosius really preached that."
The effect was immediate. Zunino was the Pacific Coast League’s player of the month in April after batting .397 with seven homers and 22 RBIs. By late June, he was back in the majors. By mid-July, he was again the Mariners’ regular catcher.
"I think the difference was just my confidence level," he said. "Now that I went down and worked my way back up, you have that sense of fulfillment in knowing that you worked your way back up."
Zunino was the third overall pick in the 2012 MLB Draft and, barely a year later, he was in the big leagues. He was the Mariners’ starting catcher on opening day in 2014 and 2015.
But it was all too fast.
By August 2015, Zunino was a mess at the plate, batting .174 with an even more anemic .230 on-base percentage while striking out in more than one-third of his plate appearances. His defense, a strength, also showed signs of slippage.
The Mariners sent Zunino back to Triple-A Tacoma on Aug. 28, the same day they fired general manager Jack Zduriencik.
A month later, the club hired Jerry Dipoto as Zduriencik’s replacement, and one of Dipoto’s first decisions was to institute a career reset for Zunino. That meant, barring a slew of spring injuries, Zunino would open the season in the minors.
"This season is going to be about what’s best in the career development of Mike Zunino," Dipoto said at the time. "We’re going to make sure that that happens.
"If Mike needs two months, if he needs four months, if he needs a season of AAA to cultivate the offensive approach that we saw while he was at the University of Florida, that’s what we’ll give him. We know it’s in there."
Through it all, Zunino remained positive.
"That was the only choice to have," he said. "If you go down in the dumps, you figure you might not come back out of it. You have to upbeat. Just getting back to enjoying the game was the biggest part.
"When you can go be yourself — and with the new staff just preaching that all of the time, `Just be yourself. Have fun.’ — it made it a lot easier to stay positive through that time."
While Zunino has his job back, he’s far from a finished product.
After encouraging signs last year when he returned to the big leagues, he slipped back into old habits over the closing weeks. He went 13-for-89 over his final 29 games with 43 strikeouts.
"That was me just sort of tinkering with some stuff," he said. "When the body starts getting tired, you try to find a way to make the swing feel good. Sometimes, you’ve just got to trust it when it doesn’t feel great."
That trust comes hard. Part of what makes Seager, for example, an impact hitter is his ability to make constant tweaks to his swing. When Zunino tries it, everything tends to fall apart.
"He’s always going to strike out," Servais said. "We can live with that because we love his power. He’s getting better at controlling the strike zone. Getting more consistent with that is a priority."
With Zunino, doing that starts with doing less and trusting more.
"You get to a point," he said, "where you start to hit too much (in batting practice, etc.) because you’re always searching for something instead of trusting yourself and knowing that your swing is perfectly fine.
"If you search for it and search for it until you think you’re feeling good, you can hit yourself right out of stuff. Less is way better. But less is boring, and that’s the thing I can’t let get to me."
The closing weeks last year reinforced that message. After posting a .280/.396/.707 slash (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in his first 26 games back from Tacoma, he finished the season at .207/.318/.470.
That those final numbers far exceeded his previous career totals provided scant comfort.
"Sometimes, you bite off more than you can chew," Zunino said. "But it was a good learning lesson to know, `Hey, stick to what you’re doing in good times or bad. Just ride that out.’ That’s going to give you the best opportunity for success."
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners