Almost lost in the shadows of Mike Zunino’s breakout performance Saturday was a four-hit effort by Danny Valencia in the Mariners’ 9-2 romp over the Tampa Bay Rays at Safeco Field.
Then again, everything paled in comparison to Zunino’s monster seven-RBI night, which included a 441-foot grand slam that reached the upper deck in left field. For a moment, the ball seemed capable of leaving the stadium.
But while the Mariners are hoping Zunino is finally pointed in the right direction, Valencia is on a sustained run. He has seven hits and a walk in his last eight plate appearances and his slash numbers are up to .276/.338/.431.
Those are all above his career norms and represent a remarkable surge after a miserable .145/.217/.226 start through April 22. One big key to his turnaround is Valencia is again driving the ball to the opposite field.
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"That’s how my swing has always worked," he said. "I’ve naturally hit the ball a lot to right field. In spring training and earlier this year, I didn’t really have a good feel for right field.
"Right now, it feels like I can go over there whenever I want to. When they play the shift the way they do, or they throw a pitch away, right now I’m able to hit the ball pretty hard that way."
Valencia is batting .339 in his last 28 games with 10 extra-base hits and 21 RBIs.
"My swing right now feels pretty good," he said. "I feel like I’m pretty consistent. I feel approach is everything. Up here, everybody’s mechanics are what they are. Having a good approach and staying with it is what helps you succeed."
Three takeaways from Saturday’s victory:
***100 and counting: It’s hard to remember now, but the general belief when the Mariners signed Nelson Cruz, coming off a 40-homer season, to a four-year deal in December 2014 was that Safeco Field would muffle his power.
Cruz hit his 100th homer as a Mariner in Saturday’s victory. He is the 14th player in franchise history to reach triple figures — and he did it far faster than anyone else.
Saturday was Cruz’s 362nd game with the club. Previously, the quickest Mariner to reach 100 homers was Richie Sexson in 463 games, followed by Alex Rodriguez in 470 games.
Cruz needs three more homers to reach 300 for his 13-year career. He has 13 this season, roughly one-third of the way through the schedule, in his quest to reach 40 for a fourth straight year.
***Gaviglio makes his pitch: Rookie right-hander Sam Gaviglio is one of three current replacement parts forced by injuries to others into regular duty in the Mariners’ rotation.
Gaviglio gave up a leadoff homer Saturday in the first inning to Corey Dickerson but no further runs in five innings before exciting due largely to a rising pitch count. Gaviglio has won his last two starts and sports a 3.13 ERA.
"Sam’s ability is to really pitch," manager Scott Servais said. "The radar gun is not going to jump out at 93-94 (mph). It’s not going to wow you with a crazy breaking ball. But you put all of the pieces together, it’s a major-league starter."
For how long? That’s still to be determined.
***From the top: Prior to the game, injured shortstop/leadoff hitter Jean Segura expressed confidence that he can return to active duty prior to the end of the month after suffering a high right ankle sprain in Thursday’s loss to Colorado.
Whether Segura is being realistic or merely hopefully optimistic should become clearer over the next week. In the interim, right fielder Ben Gamel should be the primary leadoff hitter.
Gamel is off to a good start at 5-for-9 with a walk in two games since Segura’s injury. Further, Gamel is batting .481 (13-for-27) over his last seven games and .377 (20-for-53) over his last 15 games.
"I’ve been (a leadoff hitter) my whole career," he said. "But generally for me, whether I’m hitting first or ninth, it’s the same approach."
No reason to change.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners