Words are fine, and it was important Saturday to hear Mariners outfielder Mitch Haniger insist prior to the game that he wasn’t gun shy in returning to active duty just three weeks after being hit in a face by a pitch.
Proof came at the plate.
Haniger punched a single up the middle in his first at-bat, and then yanked a grand slam in the third inning that propelled the Mariners to a 7-6 victory over Tampa Bay at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“Before the game, I was a little nervous, but that’s normal,” said Haniger, who wore a face guard on his helmet. “I felt fine. I went down to (Triple-A) Tacoma for the (six-game) rehab and got back on track.”
The Mariners also got another homer from Nelson Cruz in building a 7-2 lead for lefty starter Ariel Miranda, who ended a personal seven-game winless streak by lasting the minimum five innings.
Miranda (8-6) exited after serving up a leadoff homer to Everett native Steven Souza in the sixth inning. Emilio Pagan, so strong lately, hiccuped later in the sixth by giving up a two-run homer to Lucas Duda.
“It’s tough when a starter only gives you five,” manager Scott Servais said, “and you keep going to that bullpen every night. Pagan was not quite as sharp as we’ve seen him.”
Marc Rzepczynski, Tony Zych and Nick Vincent nursed the two-run lead into the ninth inning for Edwin Diaz, who made things interesting by giving up a one-out homer on an 0-2 pitch to ex-Mariner Logan Morrison before closing out the game.
The Mariners could also point to two sparkling defensive plays in extending their winning streak to four games and clinching a victory in the three-game series at the Trop, which marks the start of a 12-game trip through four cities.
Left fielder Ben Gamel made a leaping catch on Daniel Robertson’s leadoff drive in the fifth inning.
And with the lead down to 7-5, shortstop Jean Segura and first baseman Yonder Alonso combined for bang-bang play to get Peter Bourjos to start the seventh. Segura made a strong throw from the hole, and Alonso scooped the ball for the out.
The play of the game, though, belonged to Rays shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, who adjusted to make a catch on a high pop by Mike Zunino that hit the catwalk in the seventh inning.
Hechavarria then threw out Guillermo Heredia, who tried to advance to second, for an inning-ending double play. It was the first time in the Trop’s 20-year history that a ball that hit a catwalk resulted in a double play.
The Mariners (63-61) remained one-half game behind Los Angeles and Minnesota in the battle for the American League’s final wild-card berth.
“It’ll comes down to who can put a good streak together,” Servais said. “For us, our offense is going to have to drive us. If our bullpen continues to throw well, we’ll be right in the thick of it.”
Three takeaways from Saturday’s victory:
***Vinnie van No: Setup reliever Nick Vincent continued his under-the-radar excellence by gaining his 23rd “hold” of the season when he struck out the side in the eighth inning.
Vincent lowered his ERA to a club-leading 1.93 through a club-leading 54 games. And that’s after a few shaky outings early in the season. Vincent has a 1.34 ERA in 38 games since May 14.
***The hit machine (except): It’s easy to see why Segura is nicknamed “the hit machine” as in “Jean, Jean, the hit machine.” He led the National League last year in hits while playing at Arizona and is second this season in the AL in batting.
But Segura turns into “Jean, Jean, the out machine” with the bases loaded. The Mariners squandered as bases-loaded threat with one out in the second inning in part because Segura fanned for the second out.
Segura is batting .317 this season and .285 for his six-year career, but he is just 4-for-36 (.111) in his career with the bases loaded.
If you’re wondering: Haniger is 4-for-9 with the bases loaded, although Saturday marked his first career grand slam.
***30/100 times two: Cruz homered for the seventh time in 10 games and pushed his AL-leading RBI count to 100. In doing so, he became the fifth player in club history to hit 30 homers and drive in 100 runs in consecutive seasons.
The others are Jay Buhner (1995-97), Ken Griffey Jr. (1996-99), Alex Rodriguez (1998-2000) and Richie Sexson (2005-06).
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners