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Mike Zunino is forcing Seattle's hand

4/11/2013

The Seattle Mariners' season is still taking shape, and in the days ahead, they will have to play without Michael Saunders, who was hurt Wednesday in an ugly collision with the wall; he immediately reached up to the area of his right collarbone.

But an important part of the Mariners' future -- and 2013 season, in all likelihood -- is taking shape outside of Seattle. Catcher Mike Zunino, the No. 3 overall pick in last year's draft, is off to a strong start in Triple-A, and is starting to build his case for promotion. Zunino dominated Class A and Double-A last season, and has eight extra-base hits in his first six games for Tacoma.

Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik ran through the list of Zunino's specific skills in a phone conversation Wednesday afternoon -- good power, quick release, average to slightly above-average throwing arm. But the most important part of the impression that Zunino left in spring training was how well he fit in, how at ease he was in a major league clubhouse. As Jim Caple wrote in this piece from a few weeks ago, Zunino's mother was a catcher on the Italian softball team, and his dad was a minor leaguer.

Zunino, then, has been in the arena his whole life, and has seemed to develop a comfort with the process. Zduriencik said, "For that position, that's a really good quality. He's got a good presence. He asks great questions. He sits around and talks with older guys, and he's not intimidated at all."

That ease was also fostered by his years at the University of Florida, in the highest level of college baseball. He is rocketing through the minor leagues, to the degree that his success is something of a problem. Baseball officials greatly prefer that their prospects go through slumps, through repeated days of poor performance, so that they develop some history and process to learn how to dig themselves out mentally. So far, Zunino has done nothing but thrive in the minors.

"He just needs to play," said Zduriencik. "This guy really hasn't failed, and he needs to have the ups and the downs. He's a fast-tracker, and if you brought him to the big leagues today, he'd handle himself."

It will be Zunino who will dictate with his play his timetable to the big leagues, Zduriencik said, and it's likely that sometime soon, he will be an option for the Mariners.

Some follow-up on other top prospects at the start of this season:

Aaron Hicks, who had a great spring and won a job with the Twins, drew the ire of his manager after the Twins' latest defeat. From Mike Berardino's story:

In Hicks' case, it wasn't really the fact he is now 2-for-35 (.057) with 16 strikeouts after going hitless in five at-bats with three more whiffs.

More concerning, from Gardenhire's perspective, was Hicks' failure to run at full speed on a ball that Lorenzo Cain dropped for a two-base error in center field leading off the seventh.

"I can't handle that," Gardenhire said. "I haven't talked to him about it because I always have to calm down before I talk to people. Not finishing, not running that ball out, hesitating, kind of slowing up -- that bothers me an awful lot."

The manager, it should be noted, brought up that violation on his own.

"I don't care what you're doing on a baseball field," he said. "It takes no talent whatsoever to hustle, and he didn't finish running out. We finish balls off. We always run. That's probably part of the frustration factor, but I can't live with that. I'll have my conversation with him."

• The Mets' Zack Wheeler was recently sent for an MRI because of a blister problem.

• Yasiel Puig (Dodgers) was pulled from a game Wednesday because of a mental mistake.

Tony Cingrani is off to a great start in Triple-A, and Dusty Baker says the left-hander will be the guy called up if the Reds have a starting pitcher go down.

Jurickson Profar (Rangers) has a whole bunch of walks, and strikeouts.

Mike Olt (Rangers) is hitting .111, with 11 strikeouts in 27 at-bats.

• Wil Myers (Rays) is hitting .360 in 25 at-bats for Triple-A Durham.

Chris Archer, Myers' teammate in Durham, has two walks and 12 strikeouts in 10 innings.

• Anthony Rendon (Nationals) is hitting .192, with a bunch of walks.

• Kevin Gausman (Orioles) had a rough first outing in Double-A.

• Gerrit Cole (Pirates) has pitched six innings in his first two starts.

Around the league

• Nolan Ryan is staying with the Rangers. Hopefully, all the egos involved in this matter will remain in check, because this was one of the silliest chapters in baseball in recent years. Six weeks of internal drama came to an end, writes Evan Grant.

Maybe he's staying because he wants to start what he finishes. Richard Durrett says this is a huge relief for the club.

• A friend of Barry Zito had a great description about where he is mentally these days: For years, he was the pitcher who hadn't performed up to his end of one of the biggest contracts in baseball history. But the postseason wins over the Cardinals and Tigers last fall freed his mind, and now he's just rolling, mixing his cutter and his curveball and keeping hitters off balance, and after his outing Wednesday, he has yet to allow a run.

Plus, he's already got three hits this season.

Zito could trigger his $18 million option for next season, writes Tim Kawakami.

From Elias: The Giants have won the past 13 regular-season games started by Zito, the longest such streak for this franchise since the New York Giants won 13 consecutive games started by Sal Maglie spanning the 1951 and 1952 seasons. Zito is 9-0 with a 3.20 earned-run average during this streak. Maglie was 12-0 with a 1.45 earned-run average during his streak, including one game in relief. Zito has thrown seven scoreless innings in each of his two starts this season. The only other pitcher in Giants history to throw seven-plus scoreless innings in each of his first two starts of a season was Al Worthington -- who threw shutouts in each of his first two major league starts, in July 1953.

• The Orioles' Chris Davis was on the podcast and had some great memories of the day he had to pitch two innings last year. Orioles GM Dan Duquette says Davis has been lobbying for another opportunity, and Aaron Boone talked about the great work of Oakland hitting coach Chili Davis.

• The Athletics did some serious damage against the Angels.

Mike Scioscia called a team meeting after the Angels' loss. Scioscia talked about his team:

"The talent's in that room," said Scioscia, the orchestrator of that meeting. "I think once we get going, get that confidence level to be where it needs to be, we're going to get into our game and play our game more often. We have nobody to think about but our own club."

The sense of urgency comes from recent memory. Last year, the Angels struggled to score runs, could barely hold leads and -- minus Mike Trout -- lost 14 of their first 20 games, putting themselves in a hole they never climbed out of.
But Albert Pujols -- batting .346 and having a far better April than his homerless one last spring -- is trying to keep 2012 in the past.

"We don't go and look back and dig on the old dirt that we already buried," Pujols said after going 4-for-4 with two doubles, becoming the 35th player to notch 1,000 career extra-base hits. "Last year was last year. This is 2013. We need to stay focused and concentrate on this year. That's how I look at it, and I think I can speak for the rest of our ballclub."

• Houston is on a winning streak, and has piled up a bunch of runs the past two days.

• The legend of Evan Gattis grows with each swing. He just overwhelms the baseball with the hacks he takes. Here's video proof.

From Elias: Atlanta has allowed only 18 runs in its first nine games of the season. That matches the third-fewest runs allowed in the first nine games of a season in Braves franchise history. They allowed 15 runs in their first nine games in 1993, 16 in 1958 (while in Milwaukee) and 18 in 1888 (Boston).

Bryce Harper crushed a colossal home run. Here's video proof.

• On the day Matt Adams expected to be drafted, he waited for 15 rounds before walking away from his laptop in disgust. Now he's in the big leagues with the Cardinals and is off to a great start, with nine hits in 14 at-bats.

• The Detroit bullpen had another tough day, as John Lowe writes. So far this season, the Tigers relievers have a combined ERA of 6.66, easily the worst in the majors.

There's no need to panic yet, writes Lynn Henning.

• Boston's sellout streak came to an end, writes Tim Britton.

Dings and dents

1. Scott Sizemore has the worst luck: Another torn ACL, another lost season.

2. Sean Marshall landed on the disabled list with a sore shoulder.

3. Derek Jeter is making progress.

4. David Ortiz may be back in action as soon as next Friday, as mentioned within this Michael Silverman notebook.

5. The Pirates will wait as long as possible before deciding whether to start Wandy Rodriguez.

6. Gordon Beckham is expected to go on the disabled list.

7. R.A. Dickey is dealing with a nail problem.

8. Aaron Hill got hit on the hand.

9. Erick Aybar appears to be headed for the disabled list.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. Ivan Nova's turn in the rotation is going to be skipped.

2. Chris Dickerson got word of his promotion in an interesting way.

3. The Jays picked up an outfielder.

4. The Braves traded for a reliever.

Wednesday's games

1. The Orioles mounted a huge rally.

2. Joel Hanrahan blew the save chance.

3. The Royals are at the top of their division after sweeping the Twins.

From Elias: Royals starting pitchers are 4-0 with a 3.16 earned-run average over the team's last four games. It's the first time since September 2011 that Kansas City won four straight games with the starting pitcher earning the win in all the games. The Royals won five straight games with the starter earning the win each game during that streak. Kansas City's starters in those five games were Felipe Paulino, Everett Teaford, Bruce Chen, Luke Hochevar and Jeff Francis.

4. Jonathan Sanchez lost it early.

5. Gavin Floyd was good and bad, writes Mark Gonzales.

6. The Jays put together a badly needed rally.

7. Matt Moore came up with a good outing just when the Rays needed it. Ben Zobrist made a great throw.
Here's the video evidence.

8. A.J. Pollock had a big day.

9. The Padres' Eric Stults struggled.

NL East

Chase Utley is returning to his old self, writes David Murphy.

A record-low crowd showed up for the Marlins' game. The Marlins' season has gone from frustrating to ugly.

NL Central

• The Cardinals showed some great resilience this week, writes Bernie Miklasz. The win for Jake Westbrook was No. 99.

• The next week looms as a big test for the Pirates, writes Gene Collier.

Aramis Ramirez is out and the Brewers are struggling to find someone to replace his bat, writes Tom Haudricourt.

NL West

• Walt Weiss has confidence in Todd Helton.

Chad Billingsley was The Man for the Dodgers.

AL Central

• The Indians have some time to regroup.

Trevor Plouffe is quickly becoming a target.

Other stuff

• Cubs prospect Jorge Soler went after an opponent with a bat in his hand.

• The Jackie Robinson movie is a boon to the Negro Leagues Museum, writes Sam Mellinger.

Mariano Rivera had a great learning experience in 1997.

• This is a moment when somebody took sports way too seriously. It's supposed to be fun.

• Some umpires got stuck in traffic.

• Kevin Durant talked about his brief baseball career.

And today will be better than yesterday.