SEATTLE – Mitch Haniger is back, finally – and do the Mariners ever need him.
It has become painfully clear watching the ballclub struggle to eke out runs lately that if anything is going to short-circuit its route back to the playoffs, it will be offensive shortcomings.
And now, after his latest protracted absence, this one lasting more than three months since an ankle injury April 29, Haniger has returned to the middle of the Seattle lineup. And the Mariners offense instantly got better, even if it didn’t manifest immediately. Another upgrade will happen before the week is over when Julio Rodriguez (they fervently hope) returns from his hand injury.
Trust me, Haniger – who had five hits in his first 10 at-bats after being activated, including a home run and double – was just as frustrated as you that it didn’t happen sooner. And he’s aware what it would mean to the Mariners if he can replicate his 39-homer form of 2021 over the final two months of the season, and beyond. With a fully functioning Rodriguez-Ty France-Haniger troika at the top, it should – emphasize should – take pressure off the rest of the lineup to carry the team.
“I know what I’m capable of,” Haniger said. “I’m confident in myself and know what I mean to this team. And it’s been tough being on the sidelines, knowing that I could help them win and I haven’t been able to do that.”
Haniger has heard the whispers that he is injury-prone, and it understandably irks him. That perception is largely predicated on his hellish year-and-a-half odyssey of woe after fouling a pitch from Justin Verlander off his unprotected groin in June 2019. That, in turn, led to core and back surgeries that cost Haniger the rest of 2019 and all of 2020, before he came back to play 157 games last year as an elite offensive performer.
His injury this year was equally fluky, coming on a swing against Miami ace Sandy Alcantara (yes, Haniger’s ailments seem to come against only Cy Young-caliber pitchers; Verlander, Alcantara, and in 2017 he took a 95-mph fastball from Jacob deGrom off his face and landed on the IL for 18 games). It turned out Haniger (despite finishing the at-bat against Alcantara and lining a single) had a Grade 2 high-ankle sprain, which any athlete will tell you is a dreaded, painfully persistent injury.
“When people talk about me being injury-prone and stuff like that … I don’t have soft-tissue injuries,” he said. “I do a really good job taking care of my body. It’s always been weird stuff. And hopefully, all that stuff’s behind me.”
Whether Haniger’s body was more susceptible to injury in April because he was just coming off a bout with COVID-19 is something he wonders about but is unknowable. He actually wishes the ankle had been fractured – his first immediate thought in the batter’s box was that he had done just that – because the recovery would have been quicker. But he shrugs off those who wonder why it took into August before he returned.
“I mean, I don’t really care what a lot of people think unless they’ve had that injury themselves, and then played professional baseball and stood in the batter’s box,” he said. “I don’t really care (about) criticism from people that I wouldn’t go to for advice. If I’m not asking for advice, I don’t really care what you have to say or think about me.
“I know my teammates and the training staff and everybody who sees me on a daily basis knows how hard I work to try to get back. I don’t enjoy sitting on the sidelines. I don’t enjoy being on the injured list. That’s not what I play this game for. I play this game to try to win World Series. And unfortunately, it took awhile, and yeah I wish there was something I could have done to make it go faster. But I knew I was doing everything possible.”
The Mariners made a calculation at the trade deadline. While many saw a crying need to upgrade their offense, general manager Jerry Dipoto felt the improvement would come organically when Haniger and Kyle Lewis (who after Monday’s game was 0 for his past 13 with 10 strikeouts), in particular, returned. Instead, Seattle’s big play was acquiring pitcher Luis Castillo, the top available starter.
It’s a move that excites Haniger, particularly eyeing possible short series in the postseason. It could well be his final ride with the Mariners, as he is facing free agency after the season.
“I think that’s what good teams do,” he said. “You have to have really good starting pitching. And we have really good top-end starters. That’s what’s really exciting.”
When Haniger mentioned winning the World Series earlier, it wasn’t just lip service, despite the Mariners’ 20-year playoff drought. He came back to that goal several times in the conversation.
“I’m really confident this team will make it to the playoffs, and I think we have a really good chance of making a run at the World Series, and win the World Series,” he said.
Haniger believes this is a more complete Mariners team than the one that won 90 games last year and missed out on the playoffs on the final game of the season. That experience, he said, taught them the importance of prioritizing every game, because “it can come down to one game. You don’t want to take off any sort of games early, and think that these games don’t mean anything.”
Asked about his belief that this is a championship-caliber Mariners team, Haniger replied, “Absolutely. I think we have a great team. And I think World Series teams have to have great chemistry, and I know we have that in this clubhouse. I think it’s all about getting hot at the right time. And hopefully, go on a similar run like we did last year this year and carry that all the way through the playoffs.”
One key difference from last year for the Mariners is the presence of the rookie phenomenon, Rodriguez. Haniger has watched from the sideline with as much appreciation as anyone as Rodriguez electrified Seattle and eventually the baseball world.
“Really amazing,” he said. “I’ve been blown away by Julio. Being in this game longer, you see the young players get called up, and you really never know what to expect. You see guys that are really, really talented that come up and struggle for a year or two, maybe three.
“I knew he was going to be really good. I did not think it would get put together this fast. He’s blown me away. Both sides of the ball, the defense, the hitting. He’s been great, and we’re so lucky to have him.”
The Mariners feel lucky to once again have Haniger, after sorely missing him much of the season.
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