Zunino flourishing in postseason spotlight

October 18th, 2020

has rewritten his own script with the Rays this postseason, and the power-hitting catcher now has the opportunity to pen the perfect ending on baseball’s biggest stage.

Zunino launched his fourth home run of the playoffs in the second inning against the Astros on Saturday, tying him for the second-most by a catcher in postseason history. The Rays were expected to go deep this season, but Zunino was never expected to be one of the driving forces behind that run.

He’s earned every bit of this redemption story, though, and couldn’t hold back his outpouring of joy after the Game 7 4-2 win.

“This is beyond my wildest dreams,” Zunino said. “I feel extremely grateful. This group of guys, this organization, what we’ve had to endure this year. It’s a special group. To be able to go and play another series with these guys is well worth it.”

Surprise stars and unexpected contributors are what Rays baseball is built on, so perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Zunino’s bat is showing up when you’d least expect. This postseason run has been filled with stories that have captured the baseball world, led by the unstoppable Randy Arozarena, but manager Kevin Cash won’t let that conversation get too far without giving his catcher some love, too.

“Randy, what he did was pretty miraculous, but Z’s not far behind,” Cash said. “A heavy, heavy workload. He guided our pitchers as well as we could have asked anybody and the bat really came to life. He was just huge for us. Big hit after big hit, whether it was a homer or an RBI single, getting on base to get something going or a sac fly. He really stepped up for us. We’re all pumped for Mike Zunino.”

Those contributions Cash lists were so often the “something extra” that the Rays needed in close games, whether it be at the plate or behind it. It was clear just how valued Zunino is by his pitching staff, too, when the final out of Game 7 was recorded. After an embrace from reliever Pete Fairbanks on the mound, Zunino turned to find starter Charlie Morton, who’d raced from the dugout to find his catcher before celebrating with anyone else.

This hasn’t always been the narrative, though. When the Rays acquired Zunino from the Mariners following the 2018 season in a five-player deal, he was brought in to be the long-term answer at catcher. It was a move made with the understanding that Zunino would provide power and defense, with plenty of strikeouts to balance that, but he’s hit just .161 with a .556 OPS over the past two seasons.

For the former top prospect and No. 3 overall pick in 2012 -- just two spots behind the Astros’ Carlos Correa -- there’s no way to paint those numbers other than a disappointment. He’s been forced to battle for his job at times and grinded through some ice-cold stretches, but that’s no longer how his first two years with the Rays will be remembered.

Zunino’s always profiled as a boom-or-bust hitter at the plate, and when it matters most, business is booming.

The four home runs this postseason haven’t been cheap, with Saturday's off starter Lance McCullers Jr. traveling 430 feet. Zunino shouted to his dugout as he rounded the bases, telling his team to keep piling on after his home run put them ahead 3-0 in the second. Besides, the Rays know all too well that a 3-0 lead is never safe.

This was Zunino’s second home run of the ALCS and both have come off McCullers, with the first being his longest of the postseason at a whopping 454 feet with an exit velocity of 111.1 mph. Zunino doesn’t always make contact but, when he does, the ball is either clearing the wall or denting it.

Zunino’s rise also fits the broader narrative of this Rays team so well. This roster has its young stars like Arozarena and Willy Adames, and its established names like veteran leader Kevin Kiermaier or Morton, who pitched brilliantly in the Game 7 win. But there are so many other players who have flown under the radar or been given an extra chance, only to finally find their footing with Tampa Bay. Zunino has earned his way to this stage, but there’s a certain hunger players can gain from taking this path.

“When you look at this team, the fair share of guys in that locker room have had their backs against the wall at some point and would be fighting for this opportunity,” Zunino said after Tampa’s Game 6 loss. “We have it. It’s right there.”

Now, it’s on to the World Series. Zunino has played in 12 of the Rays’ 13 postseason games, starting 11, so you can expect him to be behind the plate every night handling this gifted pitching staff.

Zunino was bubbling over with energy as he spoke after the win, but there’s still one thing left on his celebration checklist. He’s done the confetti and silly string in the clubhouse after their first three series wins. He’s seen the famous dance battles between Arozarena and Brett Phillips. Now, he wants that champagne shower.

“I’ll tell you what, man, there’s nothing better than popping bottles and wearing some goggles and it’s still seeping through there and burning the eyes,” Zunino said. “There’s nothing better than that. There’s one time we get to do that this year, and that’s if we win the World Series.”

October has a way of finding unlikely heroes, and with Zunino’s ability to change the game in an instant, he’s built to step into the World Series spotlight.