Mariners Takeaways: Mitch Haniger and who else shined on big road trip

Apr 15, 2021, 3:44 PM | Updated: 4:00 pm
Mariners OF Mitch Haniger...
Mariners OF Mitch Haniger hit two home runs in Thursday's doubleheader. (AP)

The Mariners keep on rolling, picking up their third series win of the young 2021 season to move into first place in the American League West. This time, Seattle took three of four against the Baltimore Orioles to conclude its seven-game road trip.

Starting pitchers, Mitch Haniger lead Mariners to DH sweep of O’s

Now, the Mariners are set to return home with an 8-5 record and host the Houston Astros for a three-game set in Seattle’s first divisional games of the 2021 season.

Before moving on to that series, let’s look back at some of the big takeaways from the Mariners’ recent games.

Mitch Haniger is all the way back and then some

As the 2021 season neared, it was easy to sleep on Mitch Haniger with all of the young outfield talent that the Mariners boast in the farm system. Well, sleep no more.

After missing all of 2020 and most of 2019 due to serious injuries and surgeries, Haniger is back in full force and absolutely punishing baseballs.

Haniger has been the Mariners’ best player through 13 games, racking up a .321/.333/.623 slash line with four home runs and 10 RBIs out of the leadoff spot while also playing quality defense in right field.

Haniger was especially key in the series win over the Orioles as he tallied seven hits, two home runs and four RBIs. Both of his home runs and three of his RBIs came on Thursday when the Mariners swept the day’s doubleheader.

When Haniger last played a full season back in 2018, he was a top 10 position player in all of baseball and made his first All-Star team.

And no, that’s not an exaggeration. That’s a statistical fact. According to Baseball Reference, Haniger racked up 6.5 Wins Above Replacement in 2018. That ranked 10th among position players in MLB.

Some of the names above him? Perennial MVP candidates and All-Stars like Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Matt Chapman and Alex Bregman. Yeah, that’s pretty good company.

Haniger also finished 11th in American League MVP voting that year as the Mariners fell just short of a playoff berth.

Haniger looks to have returned to that form to start the 2021 season. Heck, he may be even on track to be better than when he last played a full season.

Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto told 710 ESPN Seattle’s Danny and Gallant on Thursday that he’s not surprised by what his right fielder has done so far this season.

“This is just who Mitch is,” Dipoto said. “… At the end of the day, Mitch (has) all the well-balanced skills and he just hasn’t skipped a beat coming back from injury.”

You can read more about what Dipoto told Danny and Gallant or listen to the full podcast by visiting this link.

Dunn and Gonzales get back on track

In 2020, rookie right-handed pitcher Justin Dunn had his struggles with command and overall effectiveness, and his status as a long-term member of Seattle’s rotation was in question. Those issues were again on display last week as he walked eight batters in 4 2/3 innings during his 2021 debut against the Chicago White Sox.

While Dunn has had his share of issues to start his career, staff ace Marco Gonzales has been Mr. Reliable since 2018 and has quietly emerged as one of the better pitchers in baseball. That’s why his struggles at the beginning of 2021 were rather startling.

After walking only seven batters in 11 starts in all of 2020, Gonzales walked six in his first two starts. Additionally, the control specialist was missing his spots, resulting in a staggering 12 earned runs and five home runs allowed in 10 1/3 innings between those two outings.

On Thursday, though, both Gonzales and Dunn were sharp, resulting in the Mariners sweeping the doubleheader to take the series 3-1 over the Orioles.

Gonzales got the ball in the first game and quickly retired the first two hitters. But after walking Maikel Franco, Trey Mancini smacked a two-run home run to give Baltimore a quick 2-0 lead. Gonzales had an answer and settled down, at one point retiring 10 in a row. He finished the game allowing just the two runs on three hits while striking out five.

For Dunn, his win in Game 2 may have been the best start of his young career.

He was on his game from the start, allowing only one run on two hits while striking out five and walking two while dealing with a rather tight strike zone. He also threw first-pitch strikes to 14 of the 20 Orioles batters he faced.

His fastball once again was in the low- to mid-90s and his slider was sharp as well.

Yusei Kikuchi and Chris Flexen have been solid to start 2021 and Justus Sheffield pitched well in his last outing. Getting Gonzales and Dunn back on track is a very welcome sign for a Mariners team that’s playing some good baseball at the moment.

J.P. Crawford figuring it out at the plate

Something the Mariners had issues with in the first two series of 2021 was that the lineup had a severe drop off in production once it got to the bottom half of the starting nine. Someone contributing to those offensive struggles was Gold Glove shortstop J.P. Crawford.

Through seven games, Crawford was slashing just .160/.192/.172.

Since then, Crawford has a six-game hitting streak and has raised his batting average to .262.

Additionally, Crawford picked up his first extra base hit of the season in the first game of Thursday’s doubleheader. In the top of the sixth inning with the game locked at 2-2, Crawford roped this two-run double, which gave the Mariners a 4-2 lead. That’s the score Seattle would win the game by in that first contest.

Crawford has been penned in to that No. 9 spot, which is key for turning the lineup over to Haniger, Ty France and Kyle Seager. Additionally, 2020 American League Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis should be back in the lineup soon, and he’ll likely hit near the top of the lineup like he did in 2020. That makes Crawford’s job more critical so those guys have more chances to do damage with runners on base.

It’s a small sample size, but Crawford appears to have turned a corner. That’s something this team needs from the bottom of the lineup, too, especially as the Mariners prepare to face two quality teams next in the Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers, who won the World Series in 2020.

Too early to discuss Kyle Seager’s option?

He went hitless twice in this most recent four-game series, but Kyle Seager had a tremendous road trip and is playing some excellent baseball. That was especially the case in Minnesota, where Seager had a number of clutch hits and home runs.

Seager currently boasts a .298/.370/.489 slash line and is playing Kyle Seager-like defense at third base. He’s also showing more willingness to go middle-away at the plate more than usual while also driving the ball and producing runs. He has two home runs and 10 RBIs through the Mariners’ 13 games.

Dipoto said Thursday on 710 ESPN Seattle it was a “mild surprise” Seager has gotten off to the hot start he has in 2021.

“That hasn’t been the norm. He’s a notoriously slow starter and it is so refreshing to see him get started the way he has, both for Kyle and for us (as a team),” Dipoto said.

Seager clearly is important to this team both as a veteran leader and as a major contributor. And even though it’s only 13 games into the season, it’s worth bringing up whether the Mariners could consider picking up Seager’s $15 million club option for 2022. If not, Seager will be a free agent and could play for another organization for the first time in his career.

As of now, it sure seems like Seager for $15 million next year would be a bargain.

Seager is one of many star Mariners players over the last two decades who hasn’t played in a playoff game. With the promising start to this season, talent waiting in the wings and no clear successor to Seager at third base, perhaps 2021 won’t be the end of the Seager era in Seattle like so many thought it would be entering the season.

What’s on tap?

Kikuchi will look to continue his hot start against the Astros Friday night in the first game of a five-game homestand. In his two starts so far, Kikuchi has recorded 16 strikeouts in 12 innings, and he currently boasts a 3.75 ERA.

First pitch is set for 7:10 p.m. with pregame coverage starting at 6 p.m. on 710 ESPN Seattle.

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Mariners Takeaways: Mitch Haniger and who else shined on big road trip