To think — now it’s Mike Zunino in the role of teacher.
He had spent the previous five years of his major-league career learning under the tutelage of veterans such as Henry Blanco, John Buck and Carlos Ruiz. But now that he’s on the 10-day disabled list with an oblique injury that could certainly keep him out longer, he’s the one working with inexperienced catcher Mike Marjama.
“Those guys I learned from had a lot more experience than I have,” said the just-turned-27-years-old Zunino prior to Saturday’s 1:10 p.m. game against the Indians. “So I’m just trying to share what they taught me and hopefully that makes the transition easier for these guys.”
And these guys being Marjama, a 28-year-old rookie and former infielder who didn’t start catching until after he was drafted by the White Sox in 2011. And now 29-year-old David Freitas, who has essentially been a career minor leaguer, but he doesn’t have any game experience with this Mariners pitching staff.
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Freitas was recalled from Triple-A Tacoma on Friday when it was learned that Zunino’s side stiffness he first felt on the last swing of his Wednesday batting practice (after about 30 swings) was really a Grade 1 oblique strain that would send him to the 10-day disabled list.
Mariners manager Scott Servais said they don’t expect the injury to last longer than his 10-day DL stint, which was retroactive to Tuesday. That would set him up for a return in typically frigid Minnesota against the Twins right around April 7 – but oblique injuries can linger, with Mitch Haniger in 2017 and this spring with Ben Gamel being examples of that.
“I was hoping it wasn’t going to be a DL stint,” Servais said. “We had to scratch him (from the Opening Day lineup) and we were just hoping to give him 48 hours. But I think the realization of what can happen when your other catcher goes down, then you’re really in a bind. I just thought it was best for him to give him the time down – it’s best for our club.
“And to clarify, everything I’ve been led to believe is that it’s not as serious as what Ben Gamel went through and Mitch Haniger went through. … He should be OK coming out of the DL in time.”
The toughest blow of this injury is halting all of Zunino’s momentum – from the end of his impressive 2017 season and his hot spring, when he hit .395 (17-for-43) in 17 Cactus League games, including one game with three home runs.
He was No. 1 on Servais’ list of do-not-get-injured players, Servais said.
“On my radar, the No. 1 most important was him,” Servais said. “Just because the value he brings to our pitching staff and where he was at offensively. I don’t think this is going to detract from what he’s able to do this season for us, but you hate to see him kind of get behind the eight ball.”
He was prepared to be playing on Opening Night and getting his jog down the red carpet during the introductions out of center field as they prepared to face two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber (Ok, so maybe that part wasn’t as appealing). It was a bit more than just frustrating for him.
“I wish there was a word more than that,” Zunino said. “If this happens halfway through the year, you take a couple of days and it’s a little bit different. But with the anticipation of the season and sort of what we had in store as a team, it’s not how you want to start. But I’m going to do everything I can to get back so I can help this team for as long as I can.”
Marjama made his share of mistakes in his late scramble into the lineup. Especially the catcher’s interference in the second inning when his glove drifted too far toward the plate and caught Edwin Encarnacion’s big swing.
Servais knows a little about being in his position, though. He was a backup catcher most of his own playing career.
“If you saw me the other night, I was yelling and screaming at him,” Servais said. “He was really amped up and then all the sudden you start creeping and reaching for balls more than you would normally do because of the excitement and where you’re at in the ball game. So I was constantly yelling at him to stay back – we cannot afford another catcher’s interference.
“But it’s also understanding what’s going through his mind – just play the game. That’s the big thing. Go out and play and we’ll take our chances.”
So Zunino doesn’t have to take on all the teaching roles, by no means. But it’s telling of where he’s come that now he’s the one applying the lessons he’s learned from those signed here to help teach him the ropes – players such as Blanco, Buck, Ruiz, Chris Iannetta and Steve Clevenger.
“The one thing you learn from those guys and veteran catchers in general is their preparation and demeanor,” Zunino said. “Through anything they are calm and collected and they can relate to anybody in the clubhouse. That’s sort of what you need to be able to do is communicate with those guys and relate to them and built that trust with them is the biggest part of our job.”
RHP Erasmo Ramirez pitched in a simulated game on Friday in his return from a lat train he suffered during spring training. Servais said it “went very well.” He threw about 25 pitches with a batter in the box and he’s expected to throw one more simulated start before throwing some rehab starts, likely with Triple-A Tacoma.
And OF Ben Gamel is apparently progressing well ahead of schedule in his return from an oblique tear. Servais said they hope he’ll be ready to pick up with Triple-A Tacoma when the Rainiers open their season April 5 at Cheney Stadium.
“A number of people thought he would come back a little bit quicker but they are even surprised he’s adapted and made the adjustments and feels good this quickly,” Servais said.
That would leave the Mariners with some choices to make when he does return as far as who takes up their outfield positions. They currently have Dee Gordon, Mitch Haniger, Ichiro Suzuki and Guillermo Heredia on the 25-man roster. Haniger and Heredia have minor-league options remaining, or they would have to consider cutting a franchise icon.
The Mariners complete their three-game series against the Indians with a 1:10 p.m. game Sunday at Safeco Field. Right-hander Mike Leake (10-13, 3.92 ERA in 2017) makes his first Mariners’ start of the season and is schedule to face the Indians’ RHP Trevor Bauer (17-9, 4.19 ERA in 2017).
The game will broadcast on Root Sports and air on 710-AM radio.
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677