Mike Zunino's struggles at the plate this season have been well documented. My affection for our catcher, and particularly his skill as a pitch framer, are similarly well known. His recent resurgence has inspired well-measured assessments of his change in approach and the seemingly positive influence of Edgar Martinez as hitting coach. But for those of us who have chosen to believe? For those of us who have quietly observed each at-bat and hoped that Edgar and high socks and lowered hands and a bit of rest might help Mike turn the corner? It was a statement of purpose. A declaration of ill intent toward baseballs everywhere. It was a thing of singular beauty.
Mike is the Platonic ideal of a "But what if he did, though?" player. What if he could combine that defense and that strength and the trust of the pitching staff with an even league average bat? What if he made good on his power? What if he struck out less and battled more? What if he hit .230? Or .250? What if he made an All-Star team? What if he proved himself worthy of the third overall pick? He probably won't. But what if he did, though?
We're nearing that point in the baseball calendar when you start to look for different things. Many fans will simply fade away, turning their attentions to other teams or entertainments, electing to live to fight another season rather than another day. For those of us who stick around, the game becomes, more than ever, about moments. Tiny flicks of the wrist; an extra spring in an extra step to leg out an improbable double. A catcher triumphant. We'll start to watch for next year's optimism. We'll wonder if September call-ups can become everyday players. We'll squint and begin to craft our tales of 2016. I knew he would be a star, I saw it in September. I could tell that guy was turning things around, just look at that throw. We want to be able to say we were there in the lean times. More than that, we want to be able to find something to savor in the midst of the daily grind of baseball that doesn't amount to anything more than marking time.
Last night's game wasn't a great one. It wasn't even a good one. It was sloppy and dull and went on far too long, while being over far too quickly. And the rest of Mike Zunino's at-bats weren't particularly awe inspiring. There were two throwback strikeouts and a hard hit ball that elected to bounce into a double play. But that home run? That home run was confident and hard hit. It was paid the ultimate compliment of being joined three innings later by a Nelson Cruz hit in almost exactly the same spot. Statcast tracked its distance at 451.5 feet and its velocity at 109.2 mph. For a moment, I thought it might leave Safeco. But the true effect of that home run wasn't something that could be captured by Statcast. It was a payoff, a reason to keep believing in the resurgence. It was one more piece of evidence that Mike is slowly lumbering from a reclamation project to a player worthy of his pre-draft hype and pedigree. It was a reason to stand tall. A hit to get us through the lean times. It was hope sent screaming out of the park at 109.2 mph. The offseason will likely come sooner than any of us thought that it would. I will look ahead to 2016 and hope that Mike Zunino continues to look like the player we've seen since Detroit.
Because, what if he did, though?