Hernandez had his best outing since returning from the disabled list, pitching six innings and allowing one run on two hits in a 7-1 victory over the Athletics. Haniger hit two home runs and Mike Zunino added a three-run homer.
OAKLAND, Calif. – Slightly more than 24 hours after being officially eliminated from the postseason, the Mariners were back on the field again. Yes, their playoff hopes had been extinguished and the overriding preseason goal went unmet, but there was still baseball left to play. Such is the nature of the 162-game marathon.
And while the 2017 season now has five games remaining, thoughts of the 2018 season and the chance to right all that went wrong this year were already coming to the forefront.
In that way, the Mariners’ 7-1 victory over the Athletics on Monday night at a largely empty Oakland Coliseum provided a glimpse/reminder for some optimism for multiple players expected to be key contributors next season.
M’s @ Oakland, 7:05 p.m., ROOT
“We aren’t going to the playoffs and that’s disappointing,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “But early as it is, you start preparing for next year.”
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Rookie outfielder Mitch Haniger continued his strong finish to his first full season at the big-league level, blasting a pair of homers, while catcher Mike Zunino, in the midst of the breakout year the Mariners always hoped for, crushed a three-run homer to provide a large portion of the offense.
“Those guys have had outstanding seasons,” Servais said. “Obviously, Haniger’s has been interrupted by the injuries and Zunino had a little stint in Triple A, but it’s great to see those guys finish strong and on a good note. They have a lot of confidence right now and we are certainly going to need them going forward.”
Oh, and this pitcher named Felix Hernandez, he had his best outing since returning from the disabled list, pitching six innings and allowing one run on two hits with two walks and two strikeouts to get the win to improve to 6-5 this season.
“Felix was really, really good,” Servais said. “And it was probably one of the worst bullpens he’s ever had when he warmed up for the game. Even Mel (Stottlemyre) said to me, ‘I don’t know if he can get through the first. He’s got nothing.’ ”
Instead, Hernandez pitched to contact and relied on ground balls and double plays — something the Mariners have pushed for from him.
Hernandez confirmed it was his last start of 2017. He made 16 starts, posting a 4.36 earned-run average, while missing almost three months.
“I just have to learn from my mistakes this year and try to be healthy for next year and get better,” he said.
Hernandez had two extended stints on the disabled list this season with shoulder bursitis — a sign of age and innings logged. He passed the milestone of 2,500 innings pitched in his career during the game. And while he might never be “King Felix,” as he was known during his seasons of dominance, he can still be a viable starter in the Mariners’ rotation. Under contract and owed more than $50 million for the next two seasons, the Mariners would love some return on their massive investment.
It has been an eventful season for Haniger.
Since Aug. 31, he has displayed the disciplined at-bats and hitting production he showed in the first 21 games of the season where he was hitting .342 (27 for 79) with a 1.054 on-base plus slugging percentage before being forced onto the disabled list with a severely strained oblique muscle.
After a two-month absence, Haniger struggled in his return from the injury, hitting .203 (27 for 133) with a .618 OPS and 37 strikeouts in 37 games. He also went back on the DL after being struck in the face by a 95 mph fastball from Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom on July 29. After his return from that disabled-list stay Aug. 19, Haniger stumbled some more, batting .147 (5 for 34) in his first nine games back. His overall average had sunk to .240 and his OPS to .743. He looked lost.
Given a day off in Baltimore on Aug. 29, Haniger worked with hitting coach Edgar Martinez on a minor tweak to his bat position and adjustment in his approach. It changed everything. He went out and got three hits the next day and is hitting .370 (37 for 100) with six doubles, a triple, eight homers and 16 RBI in the 24 games since then. For the season, he is hitting .277 with an .840 OPS.
Meanwhile, Zunino’s transformation from potential prospect bust to predicted foundation-level catcher in the span of five months has been one of the biggest developments for the team in 2017.
Sent down to Class AAA Tacoma after hitting .167 with a .486 OPS, no homers and 30 strikeouts in the first 24 games, Zunino returned with a new stance, a new swing, a new pregame preparation plan and it has all led to improved results.
A torrid June — a .304 batting average, 1.092 OPS, 10 homers and 31 RBI — was followed by a drop-off in July where he hit .188 with a .731 OPS and 28 strikeouts in 23 games. But unlike past seasons in his young career, Zunino was able to adjust, working out of the slump and returning to productivity. Since Aug. 8, he is hitting .317 (38 for 120) with 10 doubles, eight homers and 19 RBI. The overall numbers after his demotion: .266 (82 for 308) batting average, 19 doubles, 24 homers, 60 RBI and an OPS over .900 in 97 games.
“I feel like I’m competing at the plate every day,” Zunino said. “For me, my body feels good, my swing good. I haven’t felt like this in my career. It’s nice to build on that.”
• Asked about the possibility of one of his players taking a knee during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Servais said he hadn’t discussed it with the team.
Despite his preference for his staff and players standing for the anthem, he wouldn’t object to any display of protest.
“It goes back to what I said when I first got this job, ‘You have to let the players be themselves,’ ” he said. “You can’t suddenly change that.”