Zunino to represent Rays at All-Star Game

July 4th, 2021

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Kevin Cash isn’t one to call team meetings, so was taken by surprise when the Rays’ manager got the club together Sunday morning in the visitors' clubhouse at Sahlen Field. Were they going to talk about possible scheduling changes to prepare for Tropical Storm Elsa? Zunino had no idea, so he was left guessing until Cash began to speak.

First, Cash thanked everyone who was a part of the Rays’ American League championship club last year. It is because of their success, Cash said, that he and the rest of Tampa Bay’s coaching staff will oversee the AL All-Star team at Coors Field next week. And they’ll be traveling to Denver with one of their own: Zunino.

After that announcement, the clubhouse erupted in celebration for Zunino, a first-time All-Star in his ninth Major League season. The 30-year-old was chosen by his peers, voted in as a player selection, as the only catcher behind fan-elected starter Salvador Perez on the AL roster.

“It was special just to see the genuine excitement from the other guys,” Zunino said Sunday. “It means a lot to me. I think one of the biggest messages Cashy pounds home is to be a good teammate, and to see those guys excited and just the congratulations, it's special.”

Zunino has earned the honor. His batting average may not jump off the page, but his powerful bat and excellent defense behind the plate have made him one of the Rays’ most valuable players. Among catchers, only the Royals' Perez (20) has hit more home runs than Zunino (18). Defensively, only the A’s Sean Murphy has created more runs from extra strikes, according to Statcast, a testament to Zunino’s pitch-framing ability.

Zunino leads the Rays in home runs, and he has already set a single-season franchise record for the most by a catcher while playing the position. He’s only seven homers shy of his career-best mark with nearly half the season still to play. But the statistics are only a small part of what makes Zunino special, his coaches and teammates say.

“The amount of time that he spends with the pitchers and going over things and communicating with them is awesome. That’s one of the biggest ways he’s a leader on our team,” infielder Joey Wendle said. “What he’s done offensively -- some of the balls he’s hit -- it’s been incredible. … He’s been clutch for us. He’s come up with big hits when we’ve needed them. It’s been fun to watch.”

“Very deserving. All-Stars are always special,” Cash added. “Looking at Z, how his career here in Tampa [Bay] has gone, it's probably that much more special that he's just put together this tremendous first half.”

Zunino wasn’t the lone Rays player worthy of All-Star consideration, but he and Tampa Bay’s coaching staff will be their only representatives as the roster is currently constructed. Among the other top candidates: Wendle, outfielder/DH Austin Meadows and starter Tyler Glasnow, who was one of the Majors’ best pitchers before going on the injured list.

“As far as I'm concerned, Tyler is an All-Star. I know that he's not on as we speak,” Cash said. “But what he's done in this first half is worthy of being an All-Star.”

Zunino mostly deflected credit and praise upon learning the news Sunday morning, but he said it was a “real honor” to be selected by fellow players. He’s excited to share the All-Star experience with his wife, Alyssa, and two children, Rhett and Paisley. He also quickly sent a text message to his father, Greg, who will be quite busy during the All-Star festivities: The longtime scout is an East Coast crosschecker with the Reds, so he’ll be deeply involved in the MLB Draft while his son is hanging out in a clubhouse full of fellow All-Stars at Coors Field.

“It's an honor to be able to show up in that room and be with some of those names and some of those guys,” Zunino said. “Something I'll cherish for a very long time.”

After hitting his 18th home run of the season Wednesday at Nationals Park, Zunino was asked to think about the possibility of making his first trip to the Midsummer Classic and what that would mean to him. He hadn’t put much thought into it at that point, nor had it been a frequent consideration before then.

“I wouldn’t have dreamed about it in a million years,” Zunino said Wednesday. “If you had asked me five, six years ago, the way my career was going, I would never have thought about it.”

He can start thinking about it now. He’s officially an All-Star.

“Extremely grateful. It's been a long journey and it's still going,” he said. “I'm just very blessed to have a lot of people in my corner that have supported me and kept me going, and very thankful for the Rays' organization for continuing to put trust in me and giving me opportunities and just being part of this organization and really help me grow as a player.”