Opening Day will look a little different to Mike Zunino this season.
He’ll spend it in a uniform with a different name stitched across the front. With a different coaching staff. In a stadium nearly 40 miles south of the one he’s used to.
Call it a fresh start.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have a couple Opening Days (with) Seattle, and there’s nothing better than that,” Zunino said. “But it’s the same thing here. It’s baseball season, you’re excited to get going.”
Zunino, 25, spent the majority of the past three seasons as the Mariners’ starting catcher. He played a 295-game stretch with Seattle before he was optioned to Tacoma in August, when a 7-for-54 slump dropped his batting average to .174 through 112 games of the 2015 season. Zunino’s career batting average after 961 at-bats in the big leagues is .193.
“He’s aware of where he’s at,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “I’d love to see a couple fall in for him and get him to relax a little bit. Mike’s been through a lot, and he does need a few to fall in to get feeling good about himself and get the confidence back.”
That’ll be Zunino’s focus with the Rainiers.
“You don’t go to the big leagues and struggle the way he did last year without some things to work on,” Rainiers manager Pat Listach said. “Even the guys that hit .300, they still have some things to work on.”
Zunino did hit above .300 — in a 10-game stint with Tacoma at the end of last season, when he finished 13 for 41 (.317). He was then sent to instructional camp in Peoria, Arizona, and the Mariners acquired Chris Iannetta (Los Angeles Angels) and Steve Clevenger (Baltimore) — the two catchers who are opening the 2016 season on Seattle’s 40-man roster.
A 3-for-19 (.158) effort this spring cemented Zunino’s start in Tacoma.
“He has so much potential, and he’s seen it, it’s been there,” first-year Rainiers hitting coach Scott Brosius said. “Now, I think it’s just kind of that fresh, being able to take a deep breath, fresh start.”
Brosius — a former MLB third baseman for Oakland and the New York Yankees, who joins the Rainiers after 16 years of coaching at Linfield College — can give Zunino that.
“I’m catching him for the first time,” Brosius said. “For me, the slate is clean. So, for him as well.”
Zunino could use a clean slate.
“For the last two years, there were a lot of voices, and you lose track of what kind of player you are, and what your strengths are,” Zunino said.
Brosius said Zunino is knowledgeable about the strike zone and rarely swings at pitches outside of it, but needs to get the bat on the right path to produce quality at-bats.
Zunino rose through the ranks quickly the first time around. He appeared in 96 minor league games (52 with Tacoma) before he was called up to Seattle in 2013.
“It’s about circling back, finding that confidence again, so when he goes back up there he’s off and running,” Brosius said.
The idea is that quantity will help produce quality — Zunino is projected to play every day.
“He’s one of our biggest prospects in the organization,” Listach said. “He’s still a young guy, he’s still got a lot of good years left in him. Even the days that he doesn’t catch, he’ll probably DH or play first base. He’s here to get at-bats.”
As many of them as possible, but with less pressure and less urgency.
“I think when you’re relaxed and feeling comfortable in what you’re doing, that leads to success,” Zunino said. “I don’t think there’s any time frame on it, it could just be a click and that’s all you need.”
Servais said he doesn’t expect this to be an entirely developmental season for Zunino, but he needs to find consistency at the plate.
Brosius gets that.
“I’ve been at that place,” Brosius said. “I’ve been through a year where I struggled at the big league level. It’s not fun. So every hitter, we all recognize that if we’re not swinging the way we feel we’re capable of, then we do need to take a step back and figure it out.”
Iannetta gets it, too. He was sent to Triple-A Colorado Springs during his rookie season with the Rockies in 2007. And then again in 2010.
“I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs in this game, and I’m still here, I’m still playing,” Iannetta said. “When I was going through it, I felt like I’d never play baseball again. Every time I got sent down, I thought it was the last time I’d ever put on a major league uniform.
“Hopefully (Zunino) can see that and be like, ‘All right, I’m OK,’ and take some of the pressure off, some of the stress off, and go out there and be himself.”
Zunino will get that chance in Tacoma’s season opener Thursday, when the Rainiers host Albuquerque at 7:05 p.m. at Cheney Stadium.
“He understands that, for the greater good, some time here (will help) to get things back on track and gain his confidence back,” Brosius said. “Then, hopefully, our goal is to say, ‘See you later.’ And we don’t see him again down here.
“Whatever it is — to spend two months, three months or four — the short term of that is going to be so much better for the long term once he goes back up to Seattle.”
Zunino spent Opening Day with Tacoma once before. In his minor league debut in 2013, he came a single short of the cycle. He hit 3 for 4 with a double, triple, home run and three RBIs at Fresno.
He homered in four of his first five Triple-A games, and drove in 16 runs.
Zunino wouldn’t mind a similar start to this season.
“It’s nice to get here in Tacoma, get settled in and just get ready for the season,” Zunino said. “It’s really going to be exciting to get games going.”