PORT CHARLOTTE — Mike Zunino did have a personal reason for making the drive from Gainesville that mid-February day, wanting to check out some possible in-season rental homes.
But since he was going to be in the Tampa Bay area for the day, Zunino figured he might as well get some work done to benefit the Rays team.
Having kept in touch through the lockout with returning pitchers Shane McClanahan and Ryan Yarbrough, as well as free agent addition Corey Kluber, Zunino knew they all were living and working out locally.
He said if they could arrange some time on a field, he’d like to catch each of them. Plus, knowing whenever spring training started it would be abbreviated, he saw it as a chance “to get ahead” of the bonding process with Kluber.
“Everyone’s got so much going in the offseason, especially with him being a dad and having two kids,’’ Yarbrough said. “The fact that he was thinking about us at that point is pretty incredible.’’
But pretty much in character.
Zunino, 31, immediately started making a good impression on the Rays when he joined them after a November 2018 trade from Seattle, which in 2012 drafted him No. 3 overall out of Florida.
“That first spring, he was like, ‘I just want to see as many guys as I can. Hitting is important, but I want to absorb as much information on the pitching side as possible,’ ‘’ said Yarbrough, who had been previously acquired from Seattle. “I thought that was really cool. Especially for a guy to come over and just put us first, it was incredible. And I feel like it’s been that way ever since.’’
Wouldn’t that be standard operating procedure for a catcher joining a new team?
“You’d be surprised,’’ said Rays manager Kevin Cash, a former catcher himself. ‘‘More veteran catchers take the nod of ‘I’ve been here, done this. I don’t need to sit there and talk, just follow my lead.’ ‘’
That Zunino struggled at the plate most of his first two seasons in Tampa Bay — hitting .161 with 13 homers and a .556 over 118 games, and losing playing time in 2019 to Travis d’Arnaud — was understandably frustrating for him.
But the other Rays gained even more admiration, as Zunino never let them see him swear.
“I can talk Mike Zunino up all day,’’ said centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, who then did for several minutes. “I can truly say there is not one day where I saw him hanging his head or him pouting. …
“Even when times are tough, he never takes it to defense, never brings it into the clubhouse. I know we all want to sit here and play our best and put on a show and support everyone around us. But I learned so much from him.’’
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Reliever Andrew Kittredge, who played with Zunino in the Mariners system, had similar praise.
“He’s a leader,’’ Kittredge said. “He’s a positive guy. He gets both sides — the defensive side with the pitching and the offense with the hitters. So he’s kind of got his hand in with everybody. He’s definitely a great guy. His personality fits that role.’’
So a lot of people were happy when Zunino, culminating in extensive work with hitting coach Chad Mottola, had a major breakthrough at the plate last season.
Though posting a .216 overall average, he hit 33 homers with an .860 OPS, and was among the league leaders against lefty pitchers. His performance got him chosen by peers to the All-Star team, voted team MVP and turned what would have been a tough decision into an easy one on having his $7 million option for this season picked up.
Zunino said it was “rewarding” to see the hard work on his swing translate to success and “reassuring” to know he now had a foundation to work from as he strives to do even better this season.
His teammates were thrilled with his turnaround.
“I truly mean,’' Kiermaier said, “it could not have happened to a better person in the clubhouse.’’
“I love Mike Zunino,’’ Kiermaier said. “If I had a daughter, I’d want a guy like him to marry her. He is such a great dad, a great husband. I see how he operates behind closed doors. He’s just so easy to root for.
“I will go to battle with that man seven days a week, any day of the week, any year. He is awesome.’’
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