When Mike Zunino gets a big hit, the feeling of pure goodness that results is like nothing else in my Mariners fandom. I know I’m not alone on this. Smiles. Elation. Overcoming adversity. It’s all there and it all feels so good.
Zunino, the 3rd overall draft pick of the 2012 MLB Draft, is a rare homegrown Mariners player that has found success after years of struggling. I’m not going to rehash the draft history of Mariners top picks from the mid-2000s through 2015 or so, but we all know things have very, very rarely worked out in the team’s favor for myriad reasons, some systemic and some just plain garbage luck.
But, then there’s Michael Accorsi Zunino. Big Mike. The Zuni-bomber. The highly skilled catcher, pitch-blocker, and pitch-framer. Known for years as the hitter with the team’s strongest pure power, next to Nelson Cruz after he joined in 2015.
Big Z. We’ve watched him struggle at the plate. And struggle. And struggle some more. We’ve watched him strike out over and over, very often on breaking pitches. We’ve watched him struggle with plate discipline and we’ve teasingly issued a “MIKE ZUNINO WALK ALERT” on social media and in the game threads every time he actually managed to take one. We’ve watched him go back and forth between AAA, sometimes for months at a time, and always come back to the Mariners with coaches claiming “he’s got a new approach” and “he’s definitely fixed this time.”
Until 2017, these claims usually were proven inaccurate rather quickly. But, something stuck in 2017 for Zunino. While the strikeouts remained, the power showed itself more readily and the plate discipline finally arrived. With career bests in walks (39!), home runs (25), and a very-good-for-a-catcher season slash line of .251/.331/.509, it finally seemed clear that Zunino’s AAA days were behind him.
Saturday night. Huge home crowd on hand to see the Mariners take on the hated Angels. After being shutout the night before and being held scoreless through five innings, familiar feelings of hopelessness were creeping into the beaten psyches of many Mariners fans, myself included. Same old Trashiners, can’t win in front of big crowds at home, blah blah blah. After a very good month of hitting the crap out of the ball in April, how is the team suddenly finding themselves looking so meek during a home stand with their direct Wild Card/Divisional(Maybe, hmmm!?!) rivals? Why is this happening? Why does this always seem to happen?
And then, it didn’t happen. The Mariners finally put a couple runs on the board in the sixth inning. Phew. No shut-out tonight, at the very least. Then the eighth inning rolls around. Cruz singles and moves over to second base on a Seager groundout. Pitching change. Here comes newly-hyped, fresh-faced Angels reliever Justin Anderson. Unease and worry creep back in, but not for long. Ryon Healy delivers his second most important hit of the night with a single that allows Cruz to rumble all the way home from second base without incident. Okay, now we’re talking.
Mike Zunino comes to the plate, no stranger to occasionally delivering in crucial moments. Anderson throws him four pitches, all sliders. A wise choice, most days. It’s no secret how hard Zunino can punish a fastball. But, bendy stuff? Well, that’s long been his nemesis. Not tonight.
After spiking his third slider a good six feet in front of the plate, Anderson reloaded and got ready to throw it again.
Made it over the plate this time, but a little too much over the plate and without nearly enough breaking action. Whoops. But, did Big Mike get enough of it?
Yes. Yes, he did.
In spite of Justin Upton’s casual, catch-prepping jog to the left field wall and Aaron Goldsmith’s reticent and measured enthusiasm at the beginning of his call, the ball somehow ends up carrying well over the wall. Many have noted the 41 degree launch angle of this home run. There have been 9 home runs so far this season with a 41 degree launch angle or higher. Only Pedro Alvarez has hit one with a slightly higher exit velocity (by 0.8 mph), but it was off a fastball. Zunino’s moonshot is the hardest hit home run with the highest launch angle off a slider so far in 2018.
As we all know, more drama followed as the Mariners bullpen couldn’t hold the lead and the Mariners had to come back two more times to finally win it in 11 innings off Ryon Healy’s double up the third base line. It was one of the more insane, emotional roller coasters of a game that I can recall actually ending in a Mariners victory. But, Zunino’s home run is what pushed them over the initial hump Saturday night and I don’t want it be forgotten in the shuffle. I know I won’t forget it anytime soon.
And now, my favorite part....CELEBRATORY REACTIONS!!!!
This last one is special. This is joy. Catharsis. This is baseball.
This is Mike Zunino, and he is Good.