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Mariners notebook: Zunino reaches HR milestone, looks to boost other aspects of his offense

Mike Zunino reached a milestone and set a club record Friday when he hit his 20th homer of the season in the Seattle Mariners’ 7-5 victory over the Texas Rangers.

The previous club record for homers by a catcher was 19 by Miguel Olivo in 2011. (Technically, Zunino already had the record since Olivo hit one of his homers as a pinch hitter.)

Still, after Friday, there’s no need for an asterisk.

“It’s awesome,” Zunino said. “It’s nothing I ever dreamt of doing. I just want to go out there and help the team win in any way. But it’s nice to be able to be on the list.”

The record represents a bright spot in an often-rough offensive year for Zunino, who carried a .200 average and a .254 on-base percentage into Saturday’s game.

Zunino’s OBP is the lowest for any American League player with at least 300 plate appearances (Zunino has 413).

Manager Lloyd McClendon characterized Zunino’s offensive struggles as mere growing pains for a player who reached the majors less than a year after being selected with the third pick in the 2012 draft.

“Mike Zunino is going to be an All-Star catcher in the very near future,” McClendon said. “We’re dealing with a young man who has more at-bats in the big leagues than he has in the minor leagues.

“That should tell you where he is.

“Really, if you think about it, it’s almost unthinkable that he could be in the big leagues after 300 (364 to be exact) minor-league at-bats. Is he going to struggle a little bit? Yeah. Are there going to be growing pains? Absolutely.

“Are there going to be times when you wonder if he’s ever going to get a hit again? Yeah. He’s also got more home runs than any catcher in the American League. He’s doing a few things right.”

Zunino is also tied for fifth in the American League with a club-leading 138 strikeouts. And, yes, he admits that bothers him.

“Nobody likes to strike out,” he said. “It’s one of those things, though, where you just continue to adapt to how guys are throwing. Sometimes, you try to do too much at the plate when stuff is not going well.

“The best is when you can really simplify things and feel better at the plate.”

He’s trying to do that.

“When you do it wrong for so long,” said Zunino, laughing, “you’ve got to change it. When you’re not doing what you’re capable of, and not trusting yourself, you get yourself in some bad situations.

“I’m just trying to buy into simplifying everything and to trust the process of the whole thing.”

CHAVEZ BACK IN

A patched-up Endy Chavez returned to the starting lineup Saturday in right field. He exited Friday’s game after a collision at second base in the fifth inning opened a gash over his left eye that required three stitches to close.

“There’s still a little bit of swelling,” he said, “but it doesn’t hurt. We just covered the stitches (with a bandage) to make sure nothing happens.”

The injury occurred when Chavez’s helmet came loose on a head-first slide while stealing second base. The helmet struck the knee of Texas shortstop Luis Sardinas, and then slammed into Chavez’s forehead.

Chavez said he’ll be sliding feet first “for a little while.”

A RESTED KUMA?

Hisashi Iwakuma missed all of spring training, didn’t make his first start until May 3 and has pitched 59 fewer innings, at this point, than last season.

That doesn’t mean he feels extra rested as the schedule works through its final month.

“I don’t see it that way,” he said. “I felt I was behind early in the season and had to work to catch up. I feel strong in general but, at the same time, we’re in September. We all get tired.”

Iwakuma improved to 14-6 by getting the victory Friday when the bullpen held off the Rangers in the closing innings. That matches his 2013 record in nine fewer starts.

Overall, Iwakuma is 36-16 with a 2.76 ERA in 73 starts since joining the Mariners’ rotation on July 2, 2012.

Only six pitchers have more victories in that span: Max Scherzer (45-10), Adam Wainwright (45-23), Clayton Kershaw (41-17), Jered Weaver (38-20), Lance Lynn (37-21) and Jordan Zimmermann (37-16).

Only two pitchers have worked at least 400 innings in that span with a lower ERA: Kershaw at 1.91 and teammate Felix Hernandez at 2.71.

SHORT HOPS

Fernando Rodney’s 42 saves are already the second-highest total in club history. He needs four more in the Mariners’ final 22 games to break Kazuhiro Sasaki’s club record of 45 set in 2001. … Entering Saturday, the Mariners had outscored opponents by 50 runs since Aug. 1. Only the Baltimore Orioles, at plus-52, were better. …When Brad Miller homered in Friday’s game, he became the fourth shortstop in Mariners history to reach double figures. Alex Rodriguez did it five times, while Rey Quinones did it twice and Todd Cruz did it once.

LOOKING BACK

It was 16 and 17 years ago Sunday — Sept. 7, 1997 and Sept. 7, 1998 — that Ken Griffey Jr. hit his 50th homer of the season.

Those were the only years that Griffey reached 50 homers, and he finished each season with 56. He led the American League in homers on four occasions: 1994 with 40, 1997, 1998 and 1999 with 48.

He reached the milestone in 1997 with a two-run shot in the fourth inning against Bob Tewksbury in a 9-6 loss at Minnesota.

Griffey hit two homers on Sept. 7, 1998 to get to 50 in an 11-1 victory over Baltimore at the Kingdome. No. 50 was a grand slam in the sixth inning against Jimmy Key.

Junior had 630 homers when he retired June 2, 2010, and ranks sixth on baseball’s all-time list. He is eligible for election to the Hall of Fame in balloting after next season.

ON TAP

The Mariners and Rangers conclude their four-game weekend series and their 19-game season series at 12:05 p.m. Sunday at Globe Life Park.

Lefty James Paxton (5-1, 1.91 ERA) will oppose Texas left-hander Derek Holland (0-0, 1.29). Holland is making just his second start of the season after recovering from knee surgery.

Root Sports will televise the game.

The Mariners open a six-game homestand Monday with the first of three games against the Houston Astros. After an open date Thursday, they play three games next weekend against the Oakland Athletics.

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