Haniger's return expected to goose lineup for stretch run

August 7th, 2022

SEATTLE -- The Mariners’ bats were again held in check in a 7-1 loss to the Angels in Saturday’s nightcap of a doubleheader, but the return of arguably their best player could mean better times ahead. 

After a 14-week recovery from a Grade 2 right high ankle sprain, Mitch Haniger was activated from the 60-day injured list in between Seattle’s 2-1 win in the matinee and the finale. The right fielder received a roaring ovation when his name was announced and again when he took the field. 

Though Haniger didn’t inject immediate life to the lineup, going 1-for-3 with a walk and double, his return represents a possible huge addition as the Mariners eye the final eight-plus weeks of the season.

“I was feeling really a lot of energy all day today,” Haniger said. “I’m really excited to get back out on the field and rejoin the team. We’ve been playing great, and I’ve been itching to get back ever since I got hurt. It’s just about making sure that I’m feeling good, my body is ready to play every day and that I’m checking all the boxes.”

The Mariners have sorely missed Haniger’s middle-of-the-order presence and have essentially lacked a player with his pop while he’s been shelved. Eugenio Suárez might be the closest such bat, with 18 homers, but he’s far streakier than Haniger, who was one of just nine big leaguers with 39 homers and 100 RBIs in 2021.

Haniger’s return was a leading reason that the Mariners didn’t add an impact bat ahead of the Trade Deadline, instead viewing him as the midseason, difference-making addition.

Julio Rodríguez, expected to return next week from a right wrist contusion, has emerged as an offensive threat, too, but he’s given manager Scott Servais the ideal power/speed combo at leadoff. With most lineup constructions slated to feature Rodríguez, Ty France and Haniger, in order, the bottom half becomes deeper, and opponents won’t be able to pitch around France and Rodríguez as regularly as they did during Seattle’s downturn in May and June.

“We certainly need guys back and swinging it and clicking,” Mariners manager Scott Servais. “Like I said, the middle of our lineup, we struggled today.”

Haniger was activated between games to allow him to complete a more regular pregame routine. As has been the case with most Mariners returning from injury this season, he’ll likely see DH time. Haniger played in 11 games on a Minor League rehab assignment, hitting .267/.488/.567 (1.055 OPS) with three homers in 43 plate appearances.

“I think it’ll literally be day to day,” Servais said. “We’ll stop in every night and stop in before we leave the ballpark and have an idea if he’s available the next day and if he’s in the lineup or not. I’m expecting that he’ll be good to go. His rehab was extensive. It was long. And part of that was so that he can be close to 100 percent and be able to play.”

There’s also a leadership component here, too. Last October, after Seattle came just short of the postseason, Haniger penned a passionate letter in the Players’ Tribune to Mariners fans, vowing that he would do all he could to help end the club’s 20-year playoff drought. Haniger has been around T-Mobile Park all along and was a regular clubhouse presence, but it’s naturally harder to lead when you’re injured.

“Whether we’re playing really well or really bad, I want to be out there, so it sucks to be on the sidelines and it kills me more than anyone,” Haniger said. “And I’ve spent a lot of time on the sidelines over the last couple of years, and I’m hoping all the injuries are behind me.”

Beyond these final two months -- and potentially October -- Haniger eyes what could be his final stretch in Seattle. The 31-year-old is slated to become a free agent at season’s end.

“I’ve been really happy with how the team has been playing,” Haniger said. “The guys have been doing great. I’ve been really excited to get back, so I’ve been working as hard as possible to lead this team to the playoffs and win the World Series. That’s always been the goal.”