Zunino's bat, legs get Rainiers going

Seattle's No. 3 prospect goes yard, rips his first pro triple

Mike Zunino put together a .360 average between two levels in 2012. (Jordan Megenhardt/MiLB.com)

By Sam Dykstra / Special to MLB.com | April 4, 2013 11:06 PM ET

At 22 years old, Mike Zunino isn't a newcomer to the first day of baseball season.

"Opening Days are pretty much the same anywhere you go, whether it's the pros or college or high school," he said. "You get excited and everything, but there's still a good amount of anxiety to finally get out there. Still, it's always fun once you're out again."

Thursday's opener might have been a little more fun than others.

The Mariners' No. 3 prospect homered, tripled, scored three times and drove in two in his first Triple-A contest as Tacoma ruined Fresno's home opener with a 9-1 win. He finished 3-for-4 in the contest, just one double short of the cycle after a fifth-inning play was changed from an error to a hit.

The first of the 2012 first-round Draft picks to appear at the Triple-A level, Zunino walked in his first at-bat, then took a 1-1 fastball deep off Giants starter Yusmeiro Petit deep to left field in the third inning. The homer -- the Rainiers' second of the inning off the right-hander -- was believed to have traveled more than 425 feet, according to reports from the field.

As he made his first trip around the Pacific Coast League bases, Zunino tried his best to stay all business.

"It was a nice moment, to be sure," said the former University of Florida star. "But you sort of want to treat it like you've been there before, even if you haven't."

As impressive as the moonshot may have been, Zunino, who homered 13 times in 44 Minor League games last season, has developed a reputation as a power-hitting catcher. What he isn't generally known for is speed. But for a fleeting moment in the sixth, that seemed to change.

The 22-year-old backstop laced a line drive the other way to right field off reliever Mitch Lively. He sprinted around first, around second and found himself at third for his professional three-bagger. In fact, it was Zunino's first triple in an official game since 2010.

"It was one of those moments where it takes the wind right out of you," he said. "When I got there to third, I had my hands on my knees trying to hide how tired I was but I don't think I did a good job. It takes a lot of legs to get to third, and I just don't think I have them."

But Zunino's job didn't just end with his bat or his legs.

The 2012 Golden Spikes Award winner was charged with catching Mariners' top prospect Danny Hultzen as the pair came together as an official battery for the first time in a game. The two had previously worked in Spring Training bullpens, but the relationship took another level between the white lines.

After the left-handed Hultzen gave up just one earned run on three hits and struck out eight in six strong innings, there's plenty of reason to think the two could make a great pairing in the Minors and perhaps even beyond.

"He was commanding all three pitches really well," Zunino said of the southpaw. "He was mixing fastball location both in and out, and that was really able to help be effective with the changeup and breaking stuff all night."

Then again, MLB.com's No. 23 overall prospect has arguably the best PCL rotation at his disposal to start the season, and he's well aware of that.

"Our starting pitching is unreal," he said. "To save our bullpen like Hultzen did tonight is great. But we know we can put any of our guys in there, like [Logan Bawcom] and [Yoervis Medina] closing it out down for us tonight. We can keep that momentum going with any of our guys.

"I'm anxious to get the season started, and a win like tonight's definitely gets us going in the right direction."

Sam Dykstra is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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