In 2001, Ichiro Suzuki was named American League Rookie of the Year. At the age of 28, he was among the oldest recipients of all time, having spent his previous nine seasons with the Orix Blue Wave of Japanese professional baseball.
He was also named league MVP, only the second player ever to earn both RoY and MVP honors in the same season. This magical season of Sweet 116, perhaps the finest of his 17-season career, was emblematic of everything that made him such a singularly special player; he led all of baseball in hits, steals, and batting average, all the while playing mesmerizing defense in right field, his remarkable range and arm earning him a Gold Glove.
He would go on to play 12 more seasons with the team, solidifying his status as one of the greatest baseball players ever, and without a doubt, one my my absolute favorite Mariners.
Today was Ichiro Dual Bobblehead Day, a celebration of the Mariner legend in what might be his final game at Safeco Field. But for the first 8 innings of this game, the star of the show was not Ichiro, but his heir apparent in right field.
Mitch Haniger, much like Ichiro in 2001, is not your average rookie. At the age of 26, he’s spent his fair share of time in the minor leagues. However, through his somewhat circuitous route to the majors, he has developed a patient approach at the plate, exemplary work ethic, and a formidable baseball IQ that belies his lack of big league experience.
Haniger is also toolsy as all get-out, boasting impressive power, speed, and a cannon out in right field that would make Ichiro proud. He’s been a sparkplug for the Mariners in these early weeks of the season, and the only player to hit consistently since game one. And after today’s performance, it sure looks like he won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
In addition to it being Ichiro Dual Bobblehead Day, it was also Félix Day.
The King started off a little shaky, however, two of the Marlins’ five 1st-inning hits coming on the first pitch, with two more coming on the second pitch. Fortunately Jarrod Dyson was able to to limit the damage to only two runs:
While the hashtag #ThatsWhatAboveAverageOutfieldDefenseDo doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, it’ll have to do for now.
Fortunately, the M’s were able to grab a run back in the bottom of the 1st from Marlins starter Edinson Vólquez, who struggled to locate his fastball; though a grand salami-flavored Motter Pop might have been nice, Haniger was still able to score on a wild pitch with the bases loaded.
It's a wild pitch and Mitch Haniger comes in to score! M's still down a run 2-1.— Mariners (@Mariners) April 19, 2017
It might have been more, except for this little ditty at the start of the half-inning courtesy of Marlins center fielder Christian Yelich:
Here’s another angle:
One more for posterity:
The M’s grabbed 2 more runs in the 2nd, after a struggling Mike Zunino fought off a curveball for a ground rule double, followed by a walk from an uber-struggling Leonys Martín, and another walk from Dyson, loading the bases. Haniger then lined a fastball into right field, scoring Zunino and Martín to give the M’s the lead, and extending his hitting streak to 13 games.
Mitch does it all! He extends his hitting streak to 13 games with a bases loaded single. M's lead 3-2. pic.twitter.com/xSSWZI4NxU— Mariners (@Mariners) April 19, 2017
Haniger is patient. Haniger is kind. Haniger, however, is maybe not the best baserunner in the world just yet. While Robinson Canó was in the middle of striking out, Haniger attempted to steal second and was thrown out for an inning-ending double play.
The lead Haniger delivered was immediately squandered in the 3rd, as Giancarlo Stanton did Giancarlo Stanton things and jumped on a changeup, punishing it 445 feet.
The scoring see-saw saw’d in the bottom of the 3rd, however, as Kyle Seager doubled home Nelson Cruz to retake the lead.
After another quick half-inning from Félix in the 4th, the M’s bats decided he could use a little more run support. New Marlins pitcher Dustin McGowan hit Zunino with a pitch, and after getting Martín to pop out to left, surrendered a base hit to Dyson. I bet you can guess what happened next.
Ain’t he just the best.
Seager drove in another two runs later in the inning to give the Mariners an 8-3 lead.
Though Félix allowed a solo homer to Yelich in the top of the 5th, with the help of some timely defense from the Mikes Freeman and Zunino, that was all he needed.
The Mariners never looked back, Félix combining with Tony Zych and Nick Vincent for three more scoreless innings, taking the M’s into the bottom of the 8th. There they picked up a couple more, because why not, as Marlins relievers A.J. Ramos and Jarlin García each walked in a run.
M's add a pair of runs in the bottom of the 8th, now lead 10-4.— Mariners (@Mariners) April 19, 2017
Evan Marshall coming in close it out. #GoMariners
The game, to this point, had been an absolute blast. Félix Hernández received some of that good good run support he desperately deserved, and Kyle Seager showed signs of life after a largely dismal first couple weeks. Meanwhile, Mitch Haniger did everything in his power to steal the spotlight on Ichiro Dual Bobblehead Day.
Then, in the top of the 9th, Ichiro Suzuki stepped to the plate. With the entire stadium chanting his name, he took the first pitch from Evan Marshall and did something incredible.
This was a truly special moment, and one that deserves to be remembered as more than just a footnote in an otherwise terrific game. To that point, it was not Ichiro, but rather his heir apparent in Area 51, that reigned supreme. But on his bobblehead day, in likely his last ever plate appearance at Safeco Field, Ichiro made us remember who today was really about.
Finally, four and a half glorious hours after Félix’s first pitch, the game ended. The final score was 10-5, capping an invigorating homestand on a high note. This afternoon, the Mariners showed flashes of the team they can and should be, totaling 10 walks and 11 hits, doing damage with runners in scoring position, and playing superb defense. The player of the game, of course, was Mitch Haniger.
Mitch reached base all five times he stepped to the plate, knocking in four runs and scoring three more.
The Mitch Haniger Fan Club is growing by the day. I recommend joining, because if today is any indication, he’s going to be a fun one to watch. He does, however, have some pretty big shoes to fill.
Back in 2012, when Ichiro left the M’s for the team-that-shall-not-be-named, Ben Gibbard, frontman for Seattle band Death Cab for Cutie, released a song called “Ichiro’s Theme.” It’s relentlessly peppy, exhilaratingly exuberant, and invites fond memories of long summer nights at Safeco, watching in absolute awe as #51 made the spectacular routine. I’m not ashamed to say it still makes me feel things.
Maybe I’m still feeling a little giddy after this win, but if today’s performance tells us anything, it’s time to get excited about his successor in right field, too.
So, go, go, go, go, Ichiro. Go Mitch. And go M’s.