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About Last Night: Appreciating Mitch Haniger

The story of Mitch Haniger’s clutch 9th inning plate appearance that helped the M’s win.

The next Safeco Field statue?
Tee Miller (@TeeMil24)

Mitch Haniger entered this season with sky-high expectations.

Despite hitting just .229 in 123 plate appearances last season, Haniger quickly became a popular pick to break out and excel in 2017. Soon after he was dealt from Arizona to Seattle as an afterthought in a trade headlined by Jean Segura, Fangraphs’ Jeff Sullivan asked if the true headliner was actually Haniger.

Well, here we are, 13 games into the season. And Haniger has been undeniably brilliant.

He’s hitting .294/.410/.588, good for a 186 wRC+. He’s flashed the leather in right field. And he’s been a steady presence in a lineup that’s needed it, especially given the slow starts of sluggers Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager.

No game better showcased Haniger’s skills, and his potential, than yesterday afternoon’s 8-7 contest.

In the third inning, after a pair of RBI hits swelled the Texas Rangers’ lead to five, it was Haniger who came through by blasting a three-run shot to The Pen.

In the eighth, Haniger saved the day again, leaping high to bring a would-be Joey Gallo homer back down to earth in a play that has already become iconic.

(Sidebar: Even Mitch himself is on board with this catch - check out his new Twitter avatar.)

Yet the most impressive part of yesterday’s contest was his plate appearance in the ninth inning. To recap: After a Nomar Mazara dinger in the top of the ninth to put the Rangers on top, Jarrod Dyson reached on an infield single and stole second (#ThatsWhatSpeedDo). Leonys Martín bunted him over, but Sam Dyson looked to third instead of getting the sure out at first. After Martín swiped second (#ThatsWhatSpeedDo), Mike Freeman was intentionally walked to bring Haniger to the plate.

Now, for a guy who’s played fewer than 50 games in his nascent major league career, it would be entirely understandable to be nervous. This is a situation where the Mariners need a win all kinds of badly, and it’s his job to come through.

And all this is coming after being completely and totally fooled by Cole Hamels in his first at-bat, when he flailed at a Hamels change before flying out to Carlos Gomez in center.

Needless to say, there was a lot going on and a whole lot of swirling thoughts. But Mitch, a rookie without the kind of “veteran experience” one would normally chalk this up to, eked out a walk. Check it out:

Instead of biting at the low fastballs Dyson was hoping to get past him, Haniger patiently waited. The final pitch, especially, was a thing of beauty. A picture is worth a thousand words, so here’s three of them.

Jonathan Lucroy sets up at the base of the strike zone, hoping to get Haniger to bite.

You can see here the two-seamer is clearly a bit lower than intended, but certainly not unreasonably so. For a guy looking to be a hero, it’s a tough pitch to lay off. Haniger shifted his weight here, and this was quite a tempting pitch to hack at, but somehow he showed the fortitude to lay off it and watch it sail by.

Nice frame job, Lucroy...just not nice enough.

And with that, Haniger notched the game-tying RBI (RWI?), and the game came to a joyous end two batters later on Nelson Cruz’s infield single. The Mariners mobbed Nellie to celebrate, as is entirely fair and good, but the real hero of yesterday’s contest was Mitch Haniger. He flashed some power, he showed off his range and athleticism in the outfield, but most of all, he proved he’s got baseball instincts that some guys never develop. It’s hard not to be excited about Mitch Haniger. So why fight it?