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‘It feels like just yesterday’: Mitch Haniger returns to Mariners lineup for the first time since 2019 injury

UPDATED: Mon., March 1, 2021

Seattle Mariners outfielder Mitch Haniger waits to bat during Cactus League spring training last Thursday in Peoria, Ariz.  (Charlie Riedel)
Seattle Mariners outfielder Mitch Haniger waits to bat during Cactus League spring training last Thursday in Peoria, Ariz. (Charlie Riedel)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

PEORIA, Ariz. – Nine hundred, eleven thousand, five hundred, fifty minutes … how do you measure what was lost in almost two years?

In days?

In games?

In innings?

In at-bats?

In salary?

In sleepless nights?

With apologies to “Rent,” there is no uplifting song to be sung for Mitch Haniger’s “seasons of loss.”

But when he appeared from the dugout of Peoria Stadium with his Mariners teammates on a bright but windy Sunday afternoon, jogging to his customary position of right field before the top of the first inning of the Cactus League opener against the Padres, the moment meant just a little more to him than his teammates.

It was the first time that he stepped on a baseball field to compete in a game of any sort since June 6, 2019, when the Mariners played an afternoon getaway day game against the Astros at a sun-drenched T-Mobile Park.

“It was good,” he said. “Honestly, it kind of felt like normal, just go through the (pregame) routine and get back on the field. I know it’s been a while, and it definitely felt like a long time going through it. But now that I’m back, it feels like just yesterday.”

Of course, what he felt “just yesterday” in his previous game played isn’t something he enjoys reliving. In the third inning, he swung at a 93-mph fastball from Justin Verlander that was boring in on his hands. The ball struck his bat awkwardly and veered straight into his unprotected groin.

Haniger suffered a ruptured testicle that required emergency surgery. In multiple attempts to come back for the remainder of the 2019 season, he tore an abductor muscle in his core/groin area that went undiagnosed and led to a herniated disk in his back. It wasn’t until a few weeks before the start of spring training 2020 that Haniger was diagnosed with the ailments, each of which required surgeries in a span of 14 days.

He never expected so much would result from that one moment. And he certainly didn’t think it would be 633 days until he would play again. Officially, he missed 156 regular-season games, which is a reduced number due to COVID-19 forcing MLB to have a 60-game season in 2020. But regardless of the season length, it was unlikely he’d play in 2020.

“I knew it was going to be a while,” he said. “For me that was the hardest thing to kind of swallow, but it was ‘All right, I’m just going to surrender to the process and have a lot of communication with the guys that are doing my therapy’ – take it slow and just trying to build off having a good week, each week. That’s the only way you can do it.”

As for the dollars in salary, the 2020 season represented his first season of arbitration eligibility. With only 60 games played in 2019, he reached an agreement with the Mariners for a $3.01 million salary. A full season of at-bats in 2019 and Haniger might have doubled that salary. Instead, he made $1.14 million on the prorated scale. And since he didn’t play a game in 2020 and rules regarding salary reduction for arbitration-eligible players in the collective bargaining agreement, he accepted the same $3.01 million salary for 2021.

If Haniger had not had that unfortunate incident and put up numbers even close to resembling his 2018 All-Star production – .285/.366/.493 slash line, 38 doubles, 26 homers, 93 runs batted in – for 2019 and 2020, he could’ve been making $10 million to $12 million this season in salary.

With the decision made that 2020 was a lost season, Haniger was able to focus on being patient in the rehab and recovery process.

“You’ve got to just take it slow and focus on what you can control,” he said. “I had to surrender to: ‘I don’t know how long this is gonna take, but I know when I get back, I’m going to be 100% better than before.’ ”

Haniger allowed himself to heal, then started working to slowly regain the strength and muscle that was lost, returning to his typical offseason workouts in the Bay Area with Sparta Science and incorporating different training and core building techniques from Austin Einhorn of Apiros.

The innings and at-bats could be projected, given that his talent and production when healthy place him in the middle of the Mariners’ the batting order on an almost daily basis. But his presence was missed.

He reported to the Mariners facility about a week ahead of pitchers and catchers reporting with a plan to get back the game aspects that were lost, like seeing pitching from the batter’s box and moving around a field instead of a gym.

If all that time away was supposed to mess with his timing or pitch recognition, it hasn’t shown in the past week. He’s racked up multiple hits during live batting practice sessions, pummeled balls off the velocity and curveball machines, and even got an infield single in his first at-bat of the game.

“I was excited,” he said. “Definitely some nerves, which was good to feel those again. I feel those every spring training and frequently during the season. The biggest thing for me is just missing the competition. Obviously. I wasn’t playing in any games. And when you’re on the (injured list) for so long, it’s tough to find that fix of competition. That’s what I’ve missed the most.”

The ultraserious Haniger has been returned with an appreciation for what was lost in all those minutes, games and days, and also knowing something was gained.

“I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” he said. “I’ve always liked to think that I’ve been a resilient guy. I think this pretty much cemented it. It was a long time with a lot of tough weeks mixed in there, sometimes months, but it was good. I’m really thankful for my wife.”

The Mariners are thankful he’s healthy and back.

“I’m really happy for him,” manager Scott Servais said. “He’s gone through so much. We don’t know how that’s felt, and I’ve never walked in his shoes, struggling through some different surgeries. I know he was really looking forward to getting out there today. We’ll continue to monitor his playing time as we go along. He’s going to hit at the top of the order. He’ll get a couple of at-bats, and he’ll be out of there just to keep him going and keep building strength within his game.”

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