The Mariners' top Draft pick hit a pair of homers and James Gillheeney pitched six strong innings Friday as Double-A Jackson beat Chattanooga, 7-3, to take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-5 Southern League semifinals.
Zunino was on a mission to get to Chattanooga starter Zach Lee. The Generals catcher singled off the Dodgers' top prospect in the first inning, despite swinging at a pitch that caught the former University of Florida standout off-balance.
"He attacked me with a fastball and he sort of beat me. I wanted to make sure I didn't get cheated," Zunino said of his second at-bat, which resulted in his first career playoff homer. "I got the bat head out and was able to run into the ball pretty well."
Jackson can advance to the Southern League Championship Series on Saturday with a win in Game 3. Taijuan Walker, the Mariners' top prospect will take the mound opposite Lookouts right-hander Andres Santiago.
Zunino -- selected third overall in June -- went 3-for-4, adding a two-run blast in the sixth off Lee. It was his second career two-homer game -- the other came in his fourth game as a pro on July 17 for short-season Everett.
"I was as able to face him earlier in the season, a couple times during our series with Chattanooga, so I tried to remember his pitches," Zunino said. "He's got great stuff, you really have to be pay attention and try to jump on a mistake. And I got a few with the home runs."
Lee, also a first-rounder, went 6-6 with a 4.39 ERA in 25 starts at two levels this season after the Dodgers drafted him out of high school in 2010. Zunino singled off Lee in the first but wasn't satisfied.
"My first single, he beat me outside, it was a jam job," he said. "It was one of those things, you take anything you can get against him. You know every at-bat will be full concentration."
Lee avoided giving the catcher a hittable heater in the sixth. but it didn't matter.
"I was looking for something up I can drive and he threw me a fastball down and away," Zunino said. "Then he sort of hung a breaking ball, middle-in, and I threw my hands at it, just tried to elevate and put a good swing on it."
It's been an exciting season for Zunino, who's gone from the Southeastern Conference to three-time Northwest League Player of the Week to a playoff run in Jackson.
"We're just out there having fun, we haven't changed much," he said. "It's a great ballclub and they're having fun, playing well right now, so I'm hoping we can keep it up."
Zunino destroyed Northwest League pitchers, batting .373 with 10 homers and 35 RBIs in 29 games.
"It's been awesome," he said. "This team has taken me in, they've welcomed me, so I'm happy I can help them. It's a great atmosphere, so I'm really enjoying the opportunity."
Jackson took an early lead on Francisco Martinez's sacrifice fly in the first, but Chattanooga came back in the third on Rafael Ynoa's two-run homer off Gillheeney (1-0).
Zunino's homer in the fourth tied it and his second longball put the Generals ahead for good. They tacked on two runs in the seventh on RBI singles from Stefen Romero and Chih-Hsien Chiang, and Brad Miller's base hit in the eighth capped the scoring as well as a 4-for-5 night.
Chattanooga rallied in the eighth after loading the bases against Mauricio Robles, a lefty reliever who walked in a run but escaped with an inning-ending double play.
Gillheeney, a 2009 eighth-round pick out of North Carolina State, outdueled Lee by holding the Lookouts to a pair of runs on six hits over six innings. He threw 91 pitches, struck out three and did not walk a batter.
"He did great," Zunino said of his batterymate. "He was able to throw pitches when he needed to, he made some huge pitches and filled the zone up, kept them off-balance, got some huge ground balls and gave us what we needed."
Lee was charged with four runs on eight hits over 5 1/3 innings. He struck out two, throwing 72 pitches.
In other Southern League playoff action:
Montgomery 2, Mobile 1 (11 innings)
Robby Price hit a go-ahead RBI single in the 11th inning as the Biscuits tied the best-of-5 semifinal series at 1-1.
Mobile scored first when Ed Easley singled in a run in the fourth, but Montgomery tied it in the seventh on Omar Luna's leadoff homer.
A battle of the bullpens overshadowed solid efforts by both starters. Kyle Lobstein held the BayBears to one run on six hits while striking out seven over six innings, while Mobile's David Holmberg gave up a run on four hits in seven frames.
Biscuits relievers Chris Rearick, Matt Nevarez, Kirby Yates and Marquis Fleming yielded just one hit over the final five innings, with Yates getting the win and Fleming picking up the save. Gameday box score