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Saturday, June 15, 2013 - Page updated at 11:30 p.m.

Zunino’s 1st homer helps M’s beat A’s

By Geoff Baker
Seattle Times staff reporter

OAKLAND, Calif. – Young Mariners catcher Mike Zunino wasn’t making too big a deal about unloading on one of those off-speed pitches folks had worried he couldn’t hit.

Nor was his battery-mate, Joe Saunders, getting too worked up about finally notching a road victory 2½ months into the season. Come to think of it, Oliver Perez also shrugged off the fact he closed out this 3-2 win over the Oakland Athletics on Friday night for his first career save after a decade in the majors.

And perhaps it was the fact the Mariners seemed to put the over-thinking aside and simply went out and got it done for a change that cinched a desired result to begin this all-important road trip.

“I think it’s just pitch selection,’’ Zunino said of his incoming reputation for struggling with breaking balls and off-speed stuff. “I feel like I’ve always been good with breaking balls and I think it’s just getting breaking balls inside the zone to hit.

“I think it’s one of those things where I’m becoming more patient and trying to take more pitches, and I think that’s helped me so far.’’

Zunino has spent the past two weeks focusing on “going with’’ pitches, as he did in belting an 80 mph changeup from A’s starter Tommy Milone over the center-field wall in the seventh to put Seattle ahead for good. The Mariners added a run in the eighth to make it 3-1 on a Raul Ibanez single after a hard takeout slide at second by Kyle Seager broke up a double-play chance and prolonged the inning.

Chris Young hit a solo homer in the bottom of the eighth off Danny Farquhar to ignite the crowd of 31,448 at The Coliseum and set the stage for a nervy ninth. But Perez got two outs, yielded a single to Josh Reddick, then notched an Adam Rosales fly out to end it.

“Every time I’m on the mound, my job is that the other team doesn’t score,’’ said Perez, the first of what could be a committee of relievers to close games while Tom Wilhelmsen works through his struggles. “I don’t think about what inning it is.’’

Perez admitted his heartbeat did start racing once he’d closed things out. He realized it was a special career moment and also that his team — now eight games under .500 — needs to generate momentum on this trip in hopes of turning around the season before it’s too late.

“It’s very important to come into the road trip with a win,’’ he said.

It was also important for Saunders to come out of a road game with a win. He’d entered 0-4 with a 9.00 earned-run average on the road, was tired of his “Safeco Joe’’ nickname and had been victimized by hard luck in a Wilhelmsen blown save in his previous outing away from home.

Saunders looked like he’d suffer more hard luck when the A’s tied it 1-1 in the fifth on a dropped Eric Sogard fly ball to shallow right. Mariners right fielder Jason Bay raced in for it, while Nick Franklin sprinted back and neither gave way until it was too late.

Bay knocked the ball out of Franklin’s hand in the mini-collision and base runner Rosales scored all the way from first. Franklin later said he never heard Bay calling him off above the growing roar of the crowd.

In any event, Saunders got out of that inning and allowed just five hits over seven frames before leaving with a 3-1 lead. Saunders has worked hard between starts at honing certain pitches and developing more consistency.

“That’s what was killing me early on in the season, the fact that I wasn’t being very consistent — especially on the road,’’ Saunders said. “So it was time to step up my game a little bit … and go get ’em.’’

Saunders did have some help from his defense, that one dropped ball aside. He’d given up a two-out single to center by Derek Norris in the second inning with Nate Freiman at second base.

Freiman came to a complete stop at third as center fielder Michael Saunders went to field the ball — then bobbled it. The A’s waved Freiman home, but the delay caused by his initial stop gave Saunders time to throw the ball to Brendan Ryan, who made a strong relay home.

The throw pulled Zunino to his right, but he blocked enough plate so that the 6-foot-8 Freiman had to go around him to his left. Zunino caught the ball, made a sweeping tag and held on for the out.

“I just had to make sure I had the ball first and dove back to the plate,’’ Zunino said. “I was able to get a piece of him before he got in.’’

Mariners manager Eric Wedge, a former catcher, appreciated the difficulty of the play. He liked how Zunino handled himself at the plate as well.

“That ball went a long way,’’ Wedge said of the home run. “He put an easy swing on it and it went up different. It went up in the air different and you knew it had a chance to end different.’’

As did this game, in which a bunch of collective firsts ended with something other than another tough defeat.

Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or gbaker@seattletimes.com.

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