Reporters crowded around Mike Zunino’s locker, packed in closely to exchange a few thoughts with the veteran catcher. It was a familiar enough activity for Zunino, playing his seventh season in the majors.
But, as recognizable as the faces of the Seattle media were to him, having spent the past six years with the Mariners, Zunino noted the difference in location.
He wasn’t standing in front of his usual spot on the far wall of the Mariners’ clubhouse Friday afternoon. There wasn’t a permanent name plate hanging on the top of the small, wooden locker he stood in front of in the cramped visitor’s clubhouse, and the clothing hanging behind him wasn’t the same shade of blue he used to wear.
Zunino supposed he’d only been in this room on the third-base side once before in his career.
“I was here in 2013 for my first FanFest,” Zunino said. “We did an autograph session here. That’s the last time I’ve been here.”
He will have more time to scope out the space each time he visits Seattle from now on. Now a member of the Tampa Bay Rays, that clubhouse has become his new home at T-Mobile park.
The 28-year-old made his first trip back to the ballpark Friday since he was traded to the Rays last November in the deal that brought outfielders Mallex Smith and Jake Fraley to Seattle’s organization.
Zunino said the past year — from being traded, to playing with a new major-league club for the first time in his career, to becoming a first-time dad — has been a “whirlwind.”
“Obviously I never thought I’d be traded,” Zunino said. “It was sort of a surprise for me early in the offseason, but a blessing at the same time, obviously, with the birth of our first child, we were able to be close to home (in Florida).
“It’s been great so far. The organization in Tampa is top of the line. It’s been fun going and competing with these guys every day, and playing meaningful baseball right now. I’m just doing whatever I can to help this team win.”
He’s endured some of the same frustrations at the plate with the Rays as he did with the Mariners — he slashed at .207/.276/.406 across six seasons — but is trying to turn a corner as Tampa Bay continues to battle for at least an American League Wild Card spot.
Zunino is hitting a career-low .175/.242/.330 with 10 doubles, seven homers and 23 RBIs in 65 games this season after missing nearly a month in May with a quad strain.
“There’s a bunch of factors that go into it, but at the end of the day, I can control what today brings, and continue to work on it,” Zunino said. “The last week or so has felt better.
“It’s one of those things where you continue to make good strides, and it really matters what you do today, and the last two months here. Hopefully I can help this team make a push come September.”
Though he didn’t start Friday night’s series opener, Zunino was out on the field early to catch up with some former Mariners teammates. He huddled around good friends Kyle Seager, Mitch Haniger, Wade LeBlanc and Daniel Vogelbach — who he said he’s known since high school — during Seattle’s early batting practice session.
“It’s always good to see some familiar faces,” Zunino said. “It’s one of those things where you spend seven years here, and you have some good friendships. … It’s just nice to be able to come see these guys again. A little bit different than in years past, but it’s fun no matter what.”
This series against the Rays is also a homecoming for a handful of other former players in Seattle’s organization. Outfielder Guillermo Heredia also went to Tampa Bay in the Zunino deal, while Emilio Pagan pitched for the Mariners in 2017. Andrew Kittredge, a Ferris High School product, was drafted by the Mariners in 2008, and spent six seasons in the minor-league system.
The three-game series against the Rays, which begins Friday, has been dubbed “Edgar Martinez Weekend” at T-Mobile Park. The Mariners will honor the recent Hall of Fame inductee with a series of events throughout the weekend.
Saturday, the Mariners will celebrate Martinez’s induction with a pregame ceremony at 6:30 p.m. that will include members of the Mariners Hall of Fame, and other Seattle sports Hall of Famers. Sunday, the Mariners will host a pregame roundtable with Martinez, Alvin Davis, Ken Griffey Jr. and Dan Wilson at 12:20 p.m.
Martinez’s bronze Hall of Fame plaque will be on display at the ballpark during Friday and Saturday night’s games, and a flag with his jersey No. 11 will fly at the top of the Space Needle throughout the weekend.
“It’s amazing to think about it,” Martinez said Friday. “When I got here, came to the states as a young kid, I would have never thought all of this would happen to me. It’s been amazing.”
▪ Felix Hernandez (lat, shoulder) made his second minor league rehab start Thursday with Single-A Modesto, allowing two runs on three hits in two complete innings of work, and struck out three on 41 pitches.
“It was good and I feel strong and healthy,” Hernandez told The Modesto Bee following his outing. “In high (Single)-A, they are going to take more pitches and take better at-bats (compared to short season Single-A in Everett, where he made his first start).”
Servais said Hernandez would make one or two more rehab starts with Seattle’s minor league affiliates before being evaluated for a return, and needs to be stretched out to about five innings. Where he will make the starts has not yet been determined, though Hernandez said he believes he will return to Triple-A Tacoma at some point.
If all goes well, Hernandez could fit back into the fifth rotation spot when he is ready. The Mariners are currently working with four starting pitchers.
▪ Dan Altavilla (forearm) threw a simulated game Thursday in Seattle and is scheduled to begin a rehab assignment Sunday.
▪ Mitch Haniger (ruptured testicle) and Braden Bishop (lacerated spleen) are on a similar trajectory for a return, and will likely go out on rehab assignments next week. They could be sent to the same minor league affiliate, but nothing has been confirmed.
▪ Dee Gordon (quad) was scheduled to meet with a doctor Friday, and could return sooner than the two outfielders. Whether or not he will go on a rehab assignment before he’s activated has not been decided.
▪ Austin Adams (shoulder) will throw a bullpen Tuesday.