Manager Scott Servais shook up the lineup by putting Mitch Haniger in the leadoff spot. It worked perfectly against Justin Verlander as Haniger was 4 for 5 with a homer and two doubles and Jean Seguara and Denard Span each homered and and had three hits.
HOUSTON — If manager Scott Servais is true to his word, then you can probably pencil in the Mariners’ lineup for Friday’s game against the Astros.
Well, in an effort to shake things up and find some offense, Servais switched up his relatively standard batting order significantly for Thursday’s series opener in Houston. He moved Dee Gordon to the No. 9 spot and Mitch Haniger to the leadoff spot.
Trying to deflect some of the attention away from the change, Servais tried to downplay it pregame.
“I don’t know if this is permanent, but if we score eight runs, it may be permanent,” Servais said. “I really wouldn’t look at it that way. It’s just a chance to mix it up. We’ve all been around teams and they can go into a funk for a little while. And we’ve been in one for quite some time, so why not?”
Well, Skip, that’s exactly what happened.
Facing Justin Verlander for the first time this season, the Mariners rocked the all-star right-hander for six runs in two innings and then rolled to an unexpected 8-6 victory over the American League West leaders.
“I did say eight, didn’t I,” he said. “It was a great night offensively. Our guys got after it early. Sometimes starting pitchers can be most vulnerable in that first inning and we jumped on him early. It was nice night offensively.
But is it permanent?
“We’ll see what happens tomorrow,” Servais said. “But the guys liked it. It was fresh. It certainly paid off tonight. We were right on Verlander early.”
Even if Servais doesn’t go with the exact same order, it’s safe to say Haniger will be staying at the leadoff spot.
In his game as a leadoff hitter at the big-league level, Haniger had four hits in five at-bats. It included smashing a leadoff homer to deep left-center to start the game. The last Mariners leadoff hitter to start the game with a homer was Nori Aoki back in 2017 vs. the Royals. There were also a pair of doubles, two runs scored and two RBI.
“It’s the same approach,” Haniger said. “Nothing changes. I’ve batted leadoff in college and the minor leagues. I’ve always liked it, but I really don’t care where I hit. It doesn’t really matter to me. As long as there are hits, it’s fine.”
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Haniger came into the game 0 for 8 against Verlander with four strikeouts in his career.
“He’s got the best of me multiple times,” Haniger said. “You kind of know what you are going to get from him. But it’s still tough every time you face him.”
The Haniger solo homer triggered a three-run first inning. Denard Span followed with a triple and scored on Jean Segura’s double over the wall in right field. Nelson Cruz plated Segura with a crisp single to center.
A homer, a triple, a double and a single in their first four batters — the Mariners hit for the cycle, in descending order, to start the game. The last time that a team hit for the cycle in its first four batters of the game was by the Kansas City Royals on Sept. 25, 2016 vs. the White Sox.
With two outs in the second, the trio of Haniger, Span and Segura got to Verlander again. Haniger smoked a double off the wall in left-center. The inning appeared over when Verlander made an awkward pickoff move to second base, appearing to have Haniger out. However plate umpire Nic Lentz called a balk on the play, erasing the out, and allowing Haniger to advance to third. It miffed Verlander immediately and eventually got him ejected after the inning was over.
The free out proved costly when Span sent a ball into the Crawford Boxes for his ninth homer of the season and a 5-0 lead. Segura made it back-to-back homers and 6-0, crushing a ball over the wall in right field for his ninth of the season.
The Mariners picked up three runs after the balk call.
“Look, does that change the outcome of the game?,” Verlander said. ” I don’t know. I wouldn’t have thought so at the time with Paxton pitching, but it led to three more runs and we lost by two. That was a big point in the ballgame, man, for him to call that. I’ve never been called on that before.”
Verlander wasn’t certain what he did wrong.
“I don’t have an answer for you,” he said. “I’ve never been called for that. He didn’t say that I didn’t gain ground to second, he said I stepped to third base. Which I guess I don’t know enough about the rule, I hope somebody asks him. I would like a clarification personally because I don’t know what I did wrong based on what he told me. I would like to know, so that moving forward I can make an adjustment because I did the same thing I’ve done my entire career and I’ve never been called for that. Hopefully he can explain that better to me. Obviously, I was pretty upset looking at the video replay.”
The Mariners pushed the lead to 8-2 in the top of the sixth. The duo of Haniger and Span continuing their big night. Haniger singled to center to score a run and Span added a sac fly to right field for his third RBI of the night.
The run support was needed for Seattle’s pitchers even though they were facing a lineup that was missing George Springer, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa.
Starter James Paxton, who has been dominant against the Astros for the last two seasons, wasn’t quite as crisp, pitching 5 2/3 innings, allowing four runs on seven hits with three walks and five strikeouts to improve to 10-5. He’s now 4-0 vs. the Astros this season. They’re the only four wins Seattle has against the defending World Series champions this season.
“I don’t think I was at my best tonight,” he said. “Tonight was all about the offense. I kept us in the game. I kept us ahead. Those guys did a great job of getting us runs early and I just tried to hold them.”
He gave up a two-run single in the third inning and then another two runs in the sixth inning. Those two runs could have been avoided. But a phantom foul ball call and then a missed strike down the middle cost in at-bat against Tyler White that should’ve been a strikeout and ended up being a walk cost Paxton 12 extra pitches and two runs in the frame.
“I thought so,” Paxton said of having White struck out. “There were a lot of close pitches there.”
With two outs and the bases loaded, light-hitting Tony Kemp blooped a single into right field to score. It ended Paxton’s night and he stalked off the mound furious. Reliever Nick Vincent ended the drama in the frame by striking out Alex Bregman for the final out.
“Kemp had a great at-bat,” Servais said. “He fouled off some tough pitches.”
Handed an 8-5 lead in the ninth, Edwin Diaz gave up solo homer with two outs, but notched his 43rd save of the season.