ST. PETERSBURG – Mike Zunino had hit 95 home runs in the big leagues during his six years with Seattle, and 49 in the minors.
But none of them come close to what he did Monday.
Nor what happened afterward.
Zunino was playing his first game back with the Rays after being with his wife Alyssa on Friday night in Gainesville for the birth of their first child, a boy they named Rhett Michael.
All was blissful, as Alyssa and Rhett were healthy, even home for Easter dinner. Then they packed up Monday morning, with Alyssa’s mom and grandmother along to help, and made the drive back to St. Petersburg.
While Zunino went back to work at the Trop, Alyssa was watching on TV, and Rhett, too.
And, boy, did dad put on a show.
Zunino delivered his first homer of the season in a clutch situation, a tie-breaking two-run shot in the seventh, leading the Rays to a 6-3 win that snapped a four-game losing streak.
“That has to be No. 1 just for the timing of it,’’ Zunino said. “It’s one of those things that you remember certain ones. And that’s definitely the top one.’’
Making the moment more memorable, when Zunino checked his phone, Alyssa had texted him photos of Rhett looking on.
“It was one of those things where it was the first game doing that, talking to her knowing they were going to watch the game together,’’ Zunino said. “Something special. And then to get the texts (of photos) of him and everything afterwards, it’s the icing on the cake.’’
The Rays (15-8) needed it, too, having been swept over the weekend by the rival Red Sox, losing three times by a total of four runs.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, especially coming after an extra-innings loss on Thursday to Baltimore, they in doing so gave the defending World Series champs some confidence and some swagger after their shaky start, which could be the worst part of it all. Especially with the Rays headed to Boston for a return engagement this weekend.
Monday’s chance for redemption didn’t start well. The Rays trailed the Royals most of the night as Yonny Chirinos, starting due to the again short-handed bullpen, gave them a solid six-inning start, though his mistakes were costly, allowing three solo homers.
“We had a tough weekend,’’ manager Kevin Cash. “And things were not looking good in the sixth inning. … And the guys really did a good job of grinding out some at-bats. We smoked some balls early on with absolutely nothing to show for it, and that can be pretty demoralizing, frustrating, whatever you want to call it. But they kept at it. And kept putting pressure on and finally something broke.’’
Avisail Garcia led off the seventh with a double, 29th birthday boy Kevin Kiermaier followed with an infield single and Daniel Roberston capped a great at-bat with a ground ball to get one run home.
Then Zunino was the one who delivered.
Yandy Diaz added a homer in the eighth, his team-high matching sixth, and the B-side of the bullpen closed it out, with Wilmer Font getting the win and Emilio Pagan his first save.
Before the game, Zunino was asked about getting to use his “dad strength” at the plate. Zunino turned out to be a pretty good forecaster, replying, "Be nice to hit first homer today, huh? Everyone talks about it. It’d be nice to see if that works into effect sooner than later.’’
And then he did.
“That’s got to be pretty special,’’ Cash said. “I’m a big fan of Rhett Zunino right now. That’s something (Mike) is going to be able to talk about for a long time. That’s awesome. The way it came and how big of a hit it was at the time is even more impactful. It was good to have him back.’’
Zunino didn’t get the ball, which bounced back onto the field. That’s too bad, because he wanted it. He’s only kept one, from his first homer (June 14, 2013, in Oakland, off Tommy Milone), but he’d liked to have this one to show to the little guy at some point.
“That was a very special moment in my life and baseball career,’’ he said. “It’s something I’ll remember for a long time.’’
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.