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About Last Night: Mike Zunino Has a Moment

A picturebook version of one great night

Colorado Rockies v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Last night, seven players in MLB hit grand slams. Albert Pujols hit his 600th home run, and made it a grand slam, because why not. Mike Zunino hit just his 52nd, but his grand slam was the first of his career, as beautiful as it was unlikely.

Watching it, I steeled myself, as I have done so many times when Mike Zunino is up to bat. “You’ve already driven in three runs,” I whispered to him; “it’s okay if you fail here.”

He did not fail.

Emboldened by his earlier success, Zunino stood tall in the box, even in a two-strike count with two outs:

Let’s back up a second. This year, Mike Zunino has had a problem punishing bad pitches. He’s whiffed at center-cut fastballs, chased things high in the zone, missed on bad breaking balls. Last night, Mike Zunino didn’t miss Alex Cobb’s bad pitches. But for how we got to that point, we need to look at what made Mike Zunino stand so tall in the box there, even with two strikes and two outs.

Mike’s first AB of the night: one pitch, one double.

That’s a 92 mph center-cut fastball. It’s not a good pitch, even a little. But it’s a pitch Mike Zunino wasn’t able to punish earlier this year, and it’s a pitch Mike Zunino got a hold of for a double in the second inning to give the Mariners a 3-1 lead.

There were two on and one out when Zunino got his next chance to come to the plate in the fourth. He saw one pitch from Alex Cobb, an 81 mph knuckle curve that caught too much of the plate, and he seized upon it:

It’s a bad pitch, Bort. But again, Zunino was able to act aggressively and punish this mistake for an RBI single. A few days ago, I wrote about the gentleman who swooped into the LL Twitter mentions to declare that Mike Zunino couldn’t recognize a breaking ball. That does not seem to be the case here. What I wound up arguing in that article was that Mike Zunino hasn’t had any more trouble with breaking stuff this year than he has with just punishing bad pitches, and that all the plate discipline in the world is great but not if it saps him of his power tool. Just get back to who you are, I begged, someone who can destroy baseballs.

Well, Mike Zunino is nothing if not a people pleaser:

In this plate appearance, Mike had seen two pretty good splitters towards the outer edge of the plate, both of which he’d swung at to put himself in a quick 0-2 hole. He laid off a 91 mph fastball inside, refusing to get jammed, and that deserves more credit for what it set up next: a mistake pitch, an 86 mph splitter that winds up where you see it above.

It happens so fast: Mike drops that back shoulder, hurries the bat forward to meet its intended target, and the sound is like a tectonic plate shifting.

The sound isn’t so much a crack as it is a fissure: in this sound is the breaking open of this game, the breaking of the pitcher’s spirit, the breaking of the early 2017 Mike Zunino into whatever this is, this Mike Zunino who eats men’s souls.

Mike Zunino is a good lad who would not want to make pitchers feel bad, but he himself cannot help but pause here for a moment and admire what he’s made. Even Alex Cobb finds himself forced into a weird kind of salute. Zunino pauses a beat, two beats, three, the bat suspended in midair, like he’s waiting for someone to come take it, like it’s a library book he’s trying to return without inconveniencing anyone. He doesn’t want to make anyone feel bad. He just needs a second.

And then all that’s left is to round the bases, a small figure against the wide expanse of Safeco and the violet-tinged sky. He points into the stands as he nears home plate—to his wife? Someone the camera can’t find, a moment that belongs only to him and whoever is at the other end of this pointed finger.

And then he’s there, to greet his teammates, and the normally composed Zunino erupts. He slaps hands; he screams; he runs at his teammates like he’s the Kool-Aid man and they’re so many brick walls.

A lot of players had a moment yesterday, and some will loom larger than others: Edinson Volquez notching a no-hitter and honoring his friend Yordano Ventura in the process, Albert Pujols joining the 600 home run club, Yonder Alonso and Oakland hanging 10 runs on the first-place Nationals. But no story loomed larger in the Pacific Northwest than Mike Zunino, our good boy, someone who is nice and hardworking and generous of time and spirit and has been trying so, so hard, for so, so long, finally getting to have his moment.