Mike Zunino is back in the Mariners’ lineup, but can he break out of his slump?

Alexa Philippou

The Seattle Times

As the Mariners went for their first series win since defeating the Angels on July 5, they also got their starting catcher back in the lineup, who’d been sidelined with a bone bruise on his left ankle over the same time period.

The club activated Mike Zunino from the 10-day disabled list ahead of the Sunday’s series finale against the Chicago White Sox and had him slotted in eighth, optioning backup David Freitas to Class AAA Tacoma in a corresponding move.

Zunino returns to the lineup from his second stint on the DL this season looking for a fresh start at the plate. He had just four hits in his previous 40 at bats. In the 60 games prior to hitting the shelf, Zunino was batting .189 (38 for 201) but contributed 12 home runs and 29 RBIs.

In two rehab games with Tacoma, Zunino went 1 for 5 with an RBI.

“He feels good,” manager Scott Servais said. “He had a few at bats and the ankle’s not bothering him at all. We’ll get him in there today, day off tomorrow, come back after that and get him in a normal routine. We’ve missed him behind the plate and hopefully (he’ll) get his bat going too.”

Servais said that Zunino was probably ready to be activated from the DL on Saturday, but that he thought it was best to give him one more day in Tacoma in case any issues with the ankle arose.

Servais is optimistic that Zunino is on his way out of the funk. He said that the catcher is working to ensure his stance isn’t too narrow, as it had been for some time this season. Servais was pleased with Zunino’s progress in that regard and noted the catcher’s productive at bats on the day that he got hurt (Zunino drew a walk and had a single on July 4 against the Angels).

“Just trying to calm some things down, calm his head down, tracking balls a little bit better,” Servais said. “He came back, the couple games he played down there (in Tacoma), felt really good and was seeing the ball really good too.”

But what Seattle missed most about Zunino was his defense. The 27 year old boasts the third-best catcher’s ERA in the American League, 3.65, and has six defensive runs saved this season, behind only Buster Posey (eight) and Russell Martin (seven) among catchers with at least 400 innings, according to Fangraphs.

“He knows the league so well and probably most important to us, he has good rapport with all of our pitchers, understanding what their strengths and weaknesses are and how to get them through innings,” Servais said. “It’s good to have your regular guy back.”

As a former catcher himself, Servais is acutely aware of the importance of having a consistent and reliable presence behind the plate. And for a team looking to make its first postseason appearance since 2001, Servais says that Zunino has been able to provide that.

“Whether you like it or not, everybody on the field is looking at you,” Servais said. “That’s where the action’s at, so how you carry yourself, how you go about yourself, certainly when the team is struggling a little bit or you’re going through a bad inning, that’s where the experience can really help get your team over the hump. He (Zunino) has earned our trust in that point.”