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Zunino looking to contribute offensively this year

With special help from skipper McClendon, young catcher is working on his swing

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Mike Zunino knows full well that his first order of business as a catcher is working with pitchers, playing strong defense and calling games behind the plate.

But, yeah, he wants to hit, too, better than the .214 average he put up in 52 games as a rookie last season. And the Mariners would love to see better plate production from their 2012 first-round Draft pick, as well, which is why new manager Lloyd McClendon has taken an early interest in helping the 22-year-old prodigy make some slight adjustments in his swing.

McClendon, the hitting coach for the Tigers the previous seven seasons, made some suggestions to Zunino on Saturday about moving his hands back a little to put himself in a stronger position to drive the ball. And with help from Mariners hitting coach Howard Johnson, the young catcher has quickly put the advice into play and is eager to see the results in the coming weeks.

"He wanted me to get my hands in the proper position to hit, getting them all the way back in a good, strong load position," Zunino said Sunday. "That's something that registered yesterday. He saw something, so it gives me something to really focus on this spring, just trying to get that going."

McClendon might be new to Seattle, but Mariners hitters are plenty aware that he's been working with Miguel Cabrera and other outstanding hitters in Detroit in recent years.

"It's one of those things that is an advantage to having him here, a manager that was a hitting coach," Zunino said. "Obviously, HoJo is a great hitting coach, also. It never hurts to have a lot of eyes and people that know what they're doing. It's one of those things where if they see something, then I can take it to the cage and work with HoJo and really work to perfect it."

McClendon is careful not to step on Johnson's toes. The Mariners' new hitting coach has plenty of credentials himself as a two-time All-Star whose 14 seasons in the Majors included World Series titles with the '84 Tigers and '86 Mets. Johnson was hitting coach for the Mets from 2008-10 and worked as Triple-A Tacoma's batting instructor last year before joining the Mariners' staff.

"HoJo is pretty good, too," McClendon said. "I'm not going to infringe on his property. I'll interject from time to time. We had a nice session yesterday with Zunino and made a few adjustments with him. If I see something, I'll say something."

Zunino came to camp already working on standing a little more upright in the box and tinkering slightly with his stance, after watching film over the offseason that led him to believe he'd strayed a bit from the swing that made him successful before being rushed to the Majors in midseason last year.

"I just want to simplify everything," he said. "I want to stand up tall. I want to see the ball a little better. I wasn't striding as much, just so I could get my foot down early and try to recognize pitches. Last year, when you're going up there and trying to tinker with stuff in the middle of the season, you don't necessarily have the time to fix everything."

Zunino drove the ball well in his batting practice Sunday, with McClendon again pulling him aside for a quick talk and some encouragement.

"Look, Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer in the world and he makes changes all the time," McClendon said. "You have to make adjustments, and you have to adjust to the league and the pitching in this league. When they start attacking you a certain way, you need to be able to make adjustments and attack back. We're just trying to get him to a consistent launch position where he's strong and explosive and can drive the ball to all fields."

McClendon understands even small changes take time to commit to muscle memory, so that hitters stay with their new approach when they get in a game and instincts take over.

"My philosophy is, you take it from the cage to BP and eventually from BP to the field," he said. "And you have to trust it. Part of that is having an understanding with your manager and hitting coach that even if you struggle a little early on, we're going to stay with it and support you. I think that's real important."

Zunino hit .327 with 47 home runs and 175 RBIs in 193 games over three seasons at the University of Florida, where he led the Gators to three straight College World Series appearances. That offensive production, coupled with his excellent defensive skills, are why the youngster was the third pick in the 2012 Draft.

Called up to the Mariners in mid-June and thrust immediately into the starting lineup, Zunino threw his time and energy into learning his own pitchers and opposing hitters. He survived and even thrived in that role, but would love now to add some offense into the mix as well.

"That's what we have to do," Zunino said. "We have to help the pitching staff out and call a good game and do everything you can behind the plate, then hit afterward. That was my main focus, but obviously you want to contribute as much as you can at the plate, and I'm looking forward to doing that this year."

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog.
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