While attention throughout Marinerland focused this week on rookie Edwin Diaz replacing veteran Steve Cishek as the club’s closer, a much quieter changing of the guard is taking place behind the plate.
Mike Zunino started Thursday for the 10th time in 13 games since his July 20 recall from Triple-A Tacoma and, official pronouncement or not, has clearly supplanted veteran Chris Iannetta as the Mariners’ primary catcher.
“We’re going to give Mike a chance to play,” manager Scott Servais said. “This year is about Mike Zunino and putting him in a good spot. Keeping him going. We’ve got to find out what we’ve got.
“We took the steps backward. He went to Triple-A. He made adjustments in his approach. How is it going to play at the big-league level? The only way to find that out is to play him. We’ll find out.”
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So far, so good.
Zunino, 25, carried a .286 average (10-for-35) into Thursday’s series finale against Boston. His 10 hits included three doubles and five homers. He said the game feels slower now than in his previous two-plus years in the big leagues.
“Much slower,” he said. “I think that’s just me trusting myself, trusting my approach. That’s something that I’ve obviously had a lot of work on, and it’s one of those things that I’m still working on.”
The Mariners always planned to reinsert Zunino into their catching mix over the second half of the season — if he responded, as hoped, at Tacoma — but Iannetta hastened the move by plunging into a prolonged slump at the plate and behind it.
Iannetta, 33, is batting .132 over his last 22 games, which dropped his season average to .212 for 78 games. His on-base percentage, typically a strong point even when he isn’t getting hits, is down to .309, which is the second-lowest in his career.
Worse, the major defensive metrics show Iannetta in an alarming slide.
One example: He is on pace to finish at minus-7.5 in runs saved compared to average over 1,000 innings (about 112 games) in computations by Baseball Info Solutions.
That’s down from a plus-10 in the same metric a year ago while playing for the Los Angeles Angels.
In contrast, Zunino’s defense has long been viewed as a plus. He finished at plus-6.7 in the same BIS metric a year ago and is roughly on the same pace this season in limited action.
“I really like where Mike is at right now,” Servais said. “The confidence is growing, and that’s what we tried to create this year — to get him back in a good spot mentally and physically.”
Zunino’s strikeout rate, while still high, is also down from a year ago.
“There’s no panic,” Servais said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. Even in spring training, when he’d get down in the count, he’d have that panic and start swinging at balls that he really couldn’t hit. You don’t see that.
“He’s struck out a few times here, but his at-bats have been very good. Very competitive. He’s laying off some tough pitches. And when he gets a pitch to hit, he’s put a good swing on it.”
Zunino’s leadoff homer Tuesday in the eighth inning ignited a five-run rally the produced a 5-4 victory over the Red Sox. He also had a homer in Wednesday’s 3-1 victory.
“It’s always nice,” he said. “Having some results there eases the tension in it. One of the things there, too, is that you know there’s going to be some stretches where you know there’s going to be some stretches where it’s not going so good.
“Just continuing to trust what you’re doing, trust your routine and bring that to the game.”
CISHEK TO DISABLED LIST
Former closer Steve Cishek is heading to the 15-day disabled list after being diagnosed with a left hip labrum tear. The move is retroactive to Tuesday.
Cishek underwent a magnetic resonance imaging test (MRI) on Wednesday and received a cortisone shot. The injury is not believed to be serious, and club officials believe he can return after the 15-day layoff.
“We fully expect him to be out throwing in four or five days,” Servais said, “and then, hopefully, get him back up and going again after the 15 days are up.”
Cishek said he first experienced discomfort in late June.
“Really, lately, if you watched my last eight outings,” he said, “the stuff has just gone down a little bit. I was starting to pitch a little more (tentatively) because the velocity was down a tick. I just wasn’t having the same life on my fastball.”
But the problem worsened during his recent appearances and affected his performance. He surrendered runs Sunday and Monday in the ninth inning that eventually led to losses.
“I went through a stretch where I was still getting people out,” he said, “so I was just kind of dealing with it. I was too prideful to say anything.
“But once it really starting affecting my performance, my shoulder started getting more sore, and I was throwing all arm because I couldn’t get through my delivery, I figured it was time to say something.”
Cishek is 2-6 with a 3.40 ERA and 25 saves overall in 44 appearances but allowed eight runs and 11 hits in 10 innings over his last 10 appearances.
“There’s definitely optimism,” he said. “I was actually excited to get the MRI and hear what the doctor said. When you hear tears, you think worst things possible. But I guess it’s not too uncommon.
“I’m just hoping after this little stint, I’ll come back stronger than ever before.”
The Mariners replaced Cishek on their 25-man roster by selecting the contract of Tacoma closer Blake Parker, who had a 2.72 ERA and 19 saves in 38 games for the Rainiers.
To clear space for Parker on the 40-man organizational roster, the Mariners released right-hander Mayckol Guaipe, who is recently opted against surgery after being diagnosed with a ulnar collateral ligament injury.
Parker, 31, signed with the Mariners on Dec. 18, 2015 as a minor-league free agent after missing most of last season because of elbow surgery. He was 2-3 with a 3.68 ERA in 74 games for the Cubs from 2012-14.
“It’s a matter of getting innings under your belt,” he said, “and getting back to feeling normal. From where I started, I feel I’m back to 100 percent. The more innings you get, the better you feel.”
Guaipe, 25, appeared in 15 games this season, including five big-league games, before suffering an elbow injury. A Venezuelan native, he was signed by the Mariners as a 16-year-old in 2006.
ROACH TO TACOMA
The Mariners, as expected, also optioned right-hander Donn Roach to Tacoma to clear space on their 25-man roster for lefty Ariel Miranda, who started Thursday’s series finale against the Red Sox.
That move, officially, took place after Wednesday’s game but was not announced until Thursday. The Mariners obtained Miranda last Sunday from Baltimore in a trade for veteran lefty Wade Miley.
Roach, 26, made one appearance following his Aug. 1 recall; he allowed one run Tuesday in two innings against Boston but got the victory when the Mariners rallied for a 5-4 victory. He is 6-5 with a 4.21 ERA in 21 games at Tacoma.
The weekend celebration to mark the retirement of Ken Griffey Jr’s No. 24 begins Friday when his Hall of Fame plaque arrives for public viewing at Safeco Field.
The Mariners will also wear replica jerseys from 1989, Griffey’s rookie season, for their 7:10 p.m. game against the Los Angeles Angels. The jerseys will have a patch commemorating the retirement of Griffey’s number.
The first 20,000 fans through the turnstiles will get a Griffey Hall of Fame bobblehead doll.
Griffey’s number will be retired Saturday in a pre-game ceremony that begins at 5:30 p.m. The first 20,000 fans will get a replica of Griffey’s Hall of Fame plaque. On Sunday, the first 20,000 fans will get a replica of Griffey’s 1989 jersey.
Double-A lefty Ryan Yarbrough allowed just one hit Wednesday over six scoreless innings in a 4-0 victory at Montgomery (Rays). That followed his seven-inning scoreless start on July 29 in an 11-1 victory at Jacksonville (Marlins).
“His fastball command his last two outings has been so good,” Jackson pitching coach Andrew Lorraine told MiLB.com. “He has three pitches that are really complementary. He’s got a fastball that he locates really well, and (he) has a plus changeup that complements the heater.
“And he’s got a slurvy-slider that he’s been throwing really well his past few outings.”
Yarbrough, 24, is 11-4 with a 3.02 ERA in 19 starts for the Generals. He was a fourth-round pick in the 2014 MLB Draft.
It was 15 years ago Friday — Aug. 5, 2001 — that the best club in Mariners history suffered the biggest collapse in franchise history. The Mariners built a 14-2 lead at Cleveland before losing 15-14 in 11 innings.
It marked the first time in more than 75 years that a club lost when leading by 12 or more runs. The last club to do it, oddly, was the Indians on June 15, 1925 at Philadelphia when the A’s scored 13 runs in the eighth inning for a 17-15 victory.
Cleveland rallied against the Mariners by scoring three runs in the seventh inning, four in the eighth and five in the ninth before winning on Jolbert Cabrera’s walk-off RBI single in the 11th inning against Jose Paniagua.
Right-hander Taijuan Walker will be activated from the disabled list in time to start Saturday’s game against the Los Angeles Angels. Tendinitis in his right foot forced him to the disabled list after a July 5 start at Houston…shortstop Ketel Marte, out since July 17 because of mononucleosis, began a rehab assignment Thursday at Short-A Everett. The Mariners expect him to be activated by early next week…reliever Nick Vincent is scheduled to begin his rehab assignment Friday by pitching one inning at Everett. He hasn’t pitched since June 26 because of a strained muscle in his middle back…infielder Pat Kivlehan was claimed off waivers by San Diego. The Mariners designated him for assignment on Monday to clear space on their 40-man roster after acquiring infielder Michael Freeman through a waiver claim from Arizona. Kivlehan batted .293 in 42 games at Tacoma with eight homers and 25 RBIs.
The Mariners open a three-game weekend series against the Los Angeles Angels at 7:10 p.m. Friday at Safeco Field. Right-hander Felix Hernandez (5-4 with a 3.46 ERA) will face Angels right-hander Tim Lincecum (2-5, 8.49).
Lincecum is a Bellevue native and Washington alum. He will be making his second career appearance at Safeco Field. The other occurred June 16, 2012 while pitching for San Francisco, when he gave up five runs in five innings in a 7-4 loss.
The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on 710 ESPN.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners