HOUSTON — A year ago, Mitch Haniger couldn’t have felt more removed from the Mariners and baseball.
Late offseason surgeries to his groin and back in the weeks leading up to spring training of 2020 were going to keep him sidelined until at least mid-July. When COVID-19 shut down sports for three months, forcing baseball to return with a shortened 60-game season, the Mariners decided to have Haniger sit out the two-month sprint and focus on his recovery.
“It felt far away,” he said. “I still talked to a lot of close friends on the team, texting them after games. There wasn’t a ton of communication with the coaching staff or whoever because when you’re hurt, you just go about your business trying to get healthy.”
The recovery was lonely. The finish line of returning to the field felt so far away. He would get back to 100%. He would get back to the field, but he just didn’t know when.
He had no choice but to “surrender to the time” of the process.
“I think for me it was kind of good to just get away from it for a little bit,” he said. “Because going through surgeries and injuries, it can be tough. Being able to just focus on just myself and my rehab was nice.”
The 2021 season has been a reward of his patience and persistence.
On Thursday afternoon, in his 117th game of the 2021 season, Haniger stepped to the plate in the second inning with two outs, a pair of teammates on base and Rangers starter Spencer Howard on the mound.
Having already won a 10-pitch battle against Howard in the first inning, singling to right field, Haniger felt no pressure when he fell behind 0-2 in the count. He shrugged off a fastball away and fouled off a changeup with a lunging swing. Howard decided to come back with another changeup and Haniger annihilated it, pulling a line drive into the largely empty left-field seats of Globe Life Field.
Always stone-faced serious on the field, Haniger didn’t crack a smile or even change expressions as he quickly circled the bases. To the casual fan watching, they would’ve had no idea that it represented a milestone.
It was Haniger’s 27th homer, a career high, eclipsing the 26 homers he hit in his 2018 All-Star season, which was his last fully healthy season. In 2018, he hit his 26th homer Sept. 19 at Minute Maid Park in his 149th game.
“I just try be more grateful,” he said. “When you experience big injuries, especially surgeries, you realize how quickly your career could end. So now, just on a daily basis, I feel more grateful to be able to show up to the park every day and try to soak it in.”
He’s played in all but five of the Mariners’ games this season, missing two games after fouling a ball off the knee and another two games while being under the weather.
“Going into this season I was hoping to play like 155 games. I felt like having a couple days off here and there just to make sure I’m healthy after missing a year and a half would be a good idea,” he said. “I feel like I’m right where I should be as far as health-wise and where my body is at. I’m happy with how I’m feeling. If I didn’t have the DH spot, I feel like there might’ve been a couple more days where I would have needed to have an off day.”
Haniger had been in a bit of funk at the plate after hitting his 26th homer Aug. 10 against the Rangers at T-Mobile Park. Over his next seven games, he had a .167/.276/.208 slash line with just four hits and one RBI. It was part of a larger slow spell for Haniger. After hitting two homers against the A’s July 24 at T-Mobile Park, he had a .209/.283/.279 slash line with just three extra base hits over his last 22 games going into the season finale with the Rangers.
Given the fact that he missed a season and a half with injuries, Haniger’s production this year has been better than most expected.
In 117 games, he’s posted a .258/.317/.484 slash line with 19 doubles, two triples, 27 homers, 70 RBI, 36 walks, 120 strikeouts while accumulating 2.2 wins above replacement per FanGraphs.
But he had higher expectations.
“To my own standards, I’ve underperformed in certain areas of this year, but given missing so much time, I’m grateful to be back on field,” he said. “I’m happy with how I played, but I think that I can improve in certain area. I think I still can get better. I expect myself to hit for a better average. I think my power role will always be there, but I think I’m better hitter for average than I am right now.”
- Right-hander Casey Sadler was placed on the paternity list, and right-hander Yohan Ramirez was recalled from Class AAA Tacoma to take his spot in the bullpen.