In case you didn’t hear, the Mariners lost last night. Again, despite a strong performance from their supposedly shaky pitching staff, the bats were quiet, and the Mariners fell to the Astros by one run. Signs of hope appeared in the ninth inning, when Jarrod Dyson doubled to put the tying run in scoring position, and a groundout from Jean Segura moved Dyson over to third. Then Mitch Haniger came up to face Ken Giles and it, uh, it didn’t go great.
The third swing was a check swing where Haniger was enthusiastically punched out by first base ump/Justin Smoak impersonator Doug Eddings. Hitting Giles is a tough assignment even for a seasoned MLB player, let alone a rookie who’s only spent time in the National League. Last year Giles’s slider was the best in baseball, with a 62.2% whiff rate (and, fun fact, he’s followed on that list by bullpen-mate Luke Gregerson. Oh how I loathe the Astros.). He fed Haniger three sliders. Haniger bit on each one. Hello, meat.
But there’s a silver lining to this. Haniger is smart, and able to make adjustments. It wasn’t an accident that he tore things up in Peoria, just like it wasn’t an accident that he destroyed at Triple-A. This wasn’t Haniger’s first three-pitch strikeout of the night. In his first at-bat, Lance McCullers threw him a borderline curve right on the inside edge that Laz Diaz called a strike. The next pitch was in approximately the same location, but a 94-mph fastball that Haniger fouled off. That set up McCullers’s filthy curveball right at the bottom of the zone. Swing and miss, and another K for McCullers.
The next time Haniger was up in the fourth he faced McCullers again, and this time he was ready for those inside pitches. He swung at the first pitch he saw, an inside fastball (I think it was a fastball; Gameday futzed out at that moment) that caught too much of the plate, which Haniger turned on and deposited just to the left of the Crawfish Boxes. A few degrees less of rotation there and Mitch Haniger has his first home run as a Mariner. Instead, it was a long, loud foul, because this is the Mariners playing the Astros, and life is pain. McCullers then threw the same pitch, but a little more inside, for a called strike. When he came back to the same spot again, Haniger was ready for it, and ripped a double just fair down the left field line, something we saw him do again and again in spring training.
The Astros used four different pitchers, and Haniger struck out against three of them (he didn’t get a shot at striking out against Gregerson, who he worked a walk off of yesterday in a seven-pitch at-bat). His 3-K day doesn’t look great in isolation, although the double helps offset that. Still, it’s human nature to point fingers, and Haniger’s weak wave to end a close game certainly aroused some ire on Twitter and elsewhere. And the tough part of this is, Haniger is going to have some ugly ABs, especially against Astros pitching, which he has never seen in person, thanks to their stupid spring training being in stupid Florida, stupid Astros. Meanwhile, some Mariners fans—used to seeing rookies come up and flame out—are going to be harsh on him. It’s hard to trust the hype train when it’s run you over so many times. But Haniger’s ability to adjust his plate approach on subsequent at-bats is an encouraging early sign. Next time, maybe that homer stays fair.