ST. PETERSBURG -- Moments after the Mariners pulled out a 5-0 victory on Sunday, in which Felix Hernandez struck out a career-best 15 batters and Seattle rallied with five runs in the top of the ninth, manager Lloyd McClendon stopped his postgame media session before it even began so he could talk about a player who'd gone 0-for-4.
"We talk about offense all the time, but today my catcher was outstanding and probably saved the game for us," McClendon said of Mike Zunino. "He blocked his butt off. He did a tremendous job. Sometimes that goes unnoticed, but he was pretty darn good back there.
"No hits, but he won a game for us. That's pretty good."
Part of Hernandez's strikeout prowess is due to having a catcher he trusts to block his wicked changeups and sinkers in the dirt in any situation, including some precarious pitches with Tampa Bay's potential go-ahead runner perched on third in Ben Zobrist in the seventh inning.
Hernandez struck out the side in that frame, the last two with Zobrist just 90 feet from home, finishing his 15-strikeout day before McClendon replaced him with Yoervis Medina.
"He's pretty good," Hernandez said with a smile, when asked about his young batterymate. "This was one of those days when I threw everything I could and knew he'd stop it. I have a lot of confidence in Mike."
And that is music to the ears of Zunino, who prides himself on his defense. Zunino has caught all 14 of Hernandez's starts this year and has provided plenty of support with the bat, hitting .340 (17-for-50) with five home runs, nine extra-base hits, 10 runs and 13 RBIs in those games.
But defense is where Zunino earns his keep, and he knows that better than anyone.
"To me, there should be no ball getting behind me or to the side," Zunino said. "I want to keep everything in front of me, because it gives these guys trust they can throw any pitch in any count."
There is an extra degree of difficulty in that department when Hernandez is on the mound, with his array of pitches that dive at the last moment.
"It definitely keeps you on your toes, but the more I catch him, the more I get an idea of what he wants to do and how balls move at certain times and just how he works," said Zunino. "The more I catch him, I seem to learn something new about him every day. Hopefully we can really fine tune everything and keep everything going the right direction."
Iwakuma must wait to face former teammate Tanaka
ST. PETERSBURG -- A much-anticipated matchup between Yankees rookie sensation Masahiro Tanaka and Mariners All-Star right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma won't take place Tuesday at Safeco Field after the Yankees switched up their rotation following a Monday rainout in Kansas City.
The two former Japanese teammates had been slated to meet for the first time in their careers in a game even Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon was eager to see.
"That's a matchup I would pay to see, and I hope the ballpark is packed, because I think that's going to be a dandy," McClendon said before the Yankees switched up their plans for the 7:10 p.m. PT series opener.
Iwakuma and Tanaka were teammates with the Rakuten Golden Eagles from 2007-11 during Iwakuma's last five years in Japan. Iwakuma is eight years older, at 33, and he helped groom Tanaka as the phenom was just getting started in professional ball. So the Mariners standout was eager as well about the expected duel.
"We've always been on the same side until a couple years ago," Iwakuma said through translator Antony Suzuki. "You look at him and he's a teammate, he was part of the family. You used to root for the guy, and now you're going against him."
Instead, Iwakuma will face Vidal Nuno, with Tanaka going Wednesday against Chris Young.
Tanaka is 9-1 with a 2.02 ERA in his rookie season with the Yankees, as the 25-year-old has done nothing to disappoint after signing a seven-year, $155 million deal. Iwakuma isn't as big a name nationally, and he is pitching the second year of a two-year, $14 million deal that includes another option year at $7 million for 2015. But Iwakuma has been just as effective in the Major Leagues in his three seasons in Seattle.
After missing the first month of this season with a torn finger tendon, Iwakuma has gone 4-2 with a 2.66 ERA. In 56 career starts with Seattle, he's posted a 27-13 record and a 2.82 ERA, and he finished third in last year's American League Cy Young Award voting.
Iwakuma said the two have a good friendship and will likely have dinner later in the week. But they aren't on the same team anymore, so does Iwakuma have any batting hints for his teammates when they face Tanaka for the first time?
"I do have some tips," Iwakuma said with a smile, "but that's top secret."
Mariners activate Choi, place Paxton on 60-day DL
ST. PETERSBURG -- With his 50-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball's drug policy now complete, first baseman Ji-Man Choi was activated from the suspended list Monday by the Mariners, and he was transferred from Triple-A Tacoma to Double-A Jackson.
Choi needed to be added back to the Mariners' 40-man roster, so left-hander James Paxton was moved from the 15-day to the 60-day disabled list to make room. Paxton already has missed 60 days since going on the DL on April 9 with a strained lat muscle in his left shoulder, so the move doesn't affect when he'll return.
Paxton is currently rehabbing the injury that cropped up after his first Minor League rehab start with Tacoma, and he is just starting to throw again, meaning he's likely at least several weeks from rejoining the Mariners if all goes well.
"He's throwing, progressing, getting better," manager Lloyd McClendon said prior to Monday's series finale against the Rays. "We'll get an update when we get home and see where he is."
Taijuan Walker, the Mariners' other rehabbing young hurler, is making his third rehab start for Tacoma on Monday evening at Memphis as he works his way back from a shoulder issue.
Choi, 23, was hitting .394 with one home run and five RBIs in 10 games for Tacoma when he was suspended without pay on April 17 after testing positive for methandienone, a performance-enhancing substance, in violation of Major League Baseball's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.
• Right fielder Michael Saunders (sore right shoulder) and first baseman Justin Smoak (sore left quad) were both out of the lineup again for Monday's series finale against the Rays, but both could be available Tuesday when the Mariners return to Seattle to face the Yankees, McClendon said.
Saunders has been sidelined since Friday, while Smoak has been limited to late-inning defensive appearances in three of the last four games.
• After his seven scoreless innings with 15 strikeouts on Sunday, Hernandez took the lead in the AL in strikeouts (106), was tied for first in quality starts (12), third in WHIP (1.01) and fifth in ERA (2.39).