When his back still ached and the numbness shot down his right leg following abdominal surgery in February 2020, he wondered why his body was betraying him.
When he was told he needed another surgery a week later, this time to repair a disc in his back, he wondered what he had done to deserve this situation.
When he struggled to walk 10 feet without getting exhausted and he looked in the mirror at a frame that lost 30 pounds of muscle, he wondered how long it would take to feel normal again.
But Mitch Haniger never stopped believing he would be back on the baseball field. He would envision himself healthy and back in the batter’s box, swinging without hesitation or hurt. It drove him through painful rehab and frustrating moments where his patience in the process was tested.
It carried him through this unbelievable bounce-back season, where he put up numbers worthy of comeback player of the year and has been a better player than before the three-plus surgeries put him on an almost two-year hiatus.
The culmination of that relentless work, at least for now, came Saturday night with the Mariners’ season on the verge of ending in crushing disappointment.
Haniger delivered the biggest game and hit of his career, ripping a two-run single in the bottom of the eighth inning off Steve Cishek to rally the Mariners for a thrilling 6-4 come-from-behind victory over the Angels.
It capped a night where Haniger went 4-for-5 with a two-run homer while driving in five of Seattle’s six runs.
“The Haniger game is what we can call this one,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said.
The only thing missing for the night was a curtain call from the 44,414 fans packed into T-Mobile Park.
“Mitch just doesn’t give at-bats away,” Servais said. “No matter what the score is or the situation is.”
When you’ve missed as many games as Haniger since that fateful foul tip into his groin June 6, 2019, you take nothing for granted from at-bats to your career. Haniger now has 39 homers, 100 RBI and 110 runs scored on the season.
“That is truly unbelievable,” said teammate Kyle Seager, who added an RBI single after Haniger’s single for an insurance run. “You can’t say enough about him. It’s not just tonight, obviously. You don’t get to those numbers without, you know, doing it all year.”
A year ago, Haniger was getting up every morning, grinding through hours of rehab to get his body to feel normal and then strong. It was a grind with incremental results.
“It was visualizing myself being healthy, visualizing myself back on the field contributing,” he said.
Once he returned to the field and healthy, the visualizations changed to days like Saturday.
“I’m seeing ourselves in my mind, making the playoffs, squirting Champagne on everybody, having beers everywhere and just celebrating in the clubhouse,” he said. “That’s a picture that I try to paint in my mind a lot. I try to make that happen because I feel like I’ve done that with a lot of other things over the last two years and a lot of them have come true.”
He was into “Believe” before he even knew about Ted Lasso.
“There’s a big power to believing in yourself, but also the things you want to happen,” he said. “I don’t think we’d be in this in this situation if we didn’t believe we could do it.”
With the win, the Mariners gave themselves and their fans another day to dream of the postseason.
There are myriad possibilities of how their season might be extended, all involving a game No. 163, but like Saturday night, they must win Sunday afternoon against the Angels for any of them to be viable.
“Our team, we don’t quit,” Servais said. “We haven’t done it all year. We’ve had chances to quit and pack it in, but we never have, and we didn’t do it tonight. The credit goes to our players. They keep grinding, and we’ve still got something to play for in Game 162.”
The Mariners took a gut punch in the top of the eighth that silenced the sellout crowd and even sent a few fans to the exit.
Given a 3-1 lead in the eighth thanks to Haniger’s 39th homer in the fifth, right-hander Paul Sewald, the Mariners best reliever this season, walked the first two batters of the inning before finally getting the first out of the inning. His next pitch, a fastball that stayed in the middle, was turned into a missile of a three-run homer to right-center off the bat of Jared Walsh. It turned Seattle’s 3-1 lead into a 4-3 deficit.
How could a team recover from such devastation? Well, given this season, the Mariners had the Angels right where they wanted them.
“As soon as we came in, we’re like: ‘Hey, let’s go! Come on! We’ve got to put pressure on them,’ ” Haniger said. “We’ve believed in ourselves all year. We’ve come back a million times this year.”
Make it 1,000,001.
Facing Cishek, a one-time Mariner, Jarred Kelenic took a pitch off his knee to start the inning. Pinch-hitter Jake Bauers worked a walk. Jake Fraley executed a textbook sacrifice bunt to move the runners into scoring position. The Angels intentionally walked J.P. Crawford to load the bases. Ty France’s ground ball to third resulted in a force out at the plate for the second out.
It brought Haniger to the plate. When he didn’t chase a 2-2 slider up in the zone, it forced the count to full and he knew Cishek had to put a pitch in the zone. He ripped a line drive through the left side, raising his bat and screaming in jubilation as Bauers and Crawford raced home.
“There’s so many things that went into that inning that just like kind of summarizes our year,” Haniger said.
Seattle got a solid outing from Chris Flexen, who was named the team’s most outstanding pitcher Friday. The lanky right-hander pitched into the seventh inning but couldn’t quite finish it.
The Angels picked up their first run off Flexen with one out in the fifth inning. A 1-1 change-up to Jose Rojas had the left-handed hitter out in front with a lunging swing. But he managed to get the barrel of the bat on the pitch that leaked back to the middle of the plate. It produced a fly ball to right field that had just enough carry to land over the wall for a solo homer.
Flexen stared in disbelief.
But his teammates picked him up immediately in the bottom half of the inning against Angels starter Jhonathan Diaz, who had held Seattle scoreless in the first four innings.
With one out, Ty France sent a deep drive into the gap in right-center for a double. There was no hustling home this time for France, who also scored on a Haniger single in the third inning. He got to watch Haniger’s 39th homer of the season land in the Mariners’ bullpen for a 3-1 lead.
Servais immediately went to his bullpen, calling Casey Sadler to continue his run of scoreless appearances. The big right-hander struck out Max Stassi and got Jack Mayfield to ground out to end the inning and maintain the 3-1 lead.