It was an ugly and scary moment some nine weeks ago on an otherwise typically gorgeous Pacific Northwest summer Saturday afternoon at Safeco Field.
A 95-mph fastball got away from New York Mets right-hander Jacob deGrom on July 29 and struck rookie outfielder Mitch Haniger above the lip on the left side of his face.
Haniger had to be helped from the field and required plastic surgery to correct severe lacerations, but he returned to the lineup just three weeks later and, while his helmet now includes a face guard, he displays no apparent lingering effects.
"Anything up in my face," he said, "I’m going to try to get out of the way. But anything below the neck, I usually try to wear. But, no, I don’t think about it. Even when I started my rehab assignment, I didn’t think about it.
Haniger is batting .304 with nine doubles, nine homers and 23 RBIs over 36 games through Friday since returning from a second extended stay on the disabled list. He also missed seven weeks this season because of a strained oblique muscle.
"I feel good," he said. "My body feels good. I’m always making swing adjustments. Nothing crazy. I just feel good."
Haniger is closing out a strong season and in the process validating the trust the Mariners showed in handing him a full-time starting job upon acquiring him in a Nov. 23 blockbuster trade with Arizona.
"It’s really important how you finish seasons," manager Scott Servais said. "What Haniger has done and how he’s bounced back is important. `Oh, he has just one good month.’ No, he’s had a couple of good months.
"When he’s healthy, and he’s playing every day, and you see how he goes about his preparation, everything starts to pay off…He just keeps playing. There’s a lot of value in that."
Haniger’s recovery and resurgence represents a silver lining as the curtain drops Sunday on another disappointing season for the Mariners. A 16th straight year without reaching postseason. A losing season for the sixth time in eight years.
Injuries began chewing up the rotation in spring training and continued throughout the season. The Mariners tied a major-league record by using 40 pitchers and matched a club record by using 17 starters.
There were times when the rotation resembled the closing scenes in Rogue One.
It wasn’t just the rotation,either.
Four players who started the season opener in Houston spent time on the disabled list: Haniger (twice), shortstop Jean Segura (twice), second baseman Robinson Cano and outfielder Jarrod Dyson.
Designated hitter Nelson Cruz and third baseman Kyle Seager also battled nagging injuries that forced them to miss games, although they each avoided a DL stay.
A lot went wrong beyond the injuries. Relentlessly bad baserunning. Too-frequent breakdowns in fundamentals, particularly on defense. It all proved too much to overcome. All must be addressed before next season.
But there were positives, too, that should seed optimism among the faithful that next year might turn out differently. Haniger is one. Here are four others:
***Catcher Mike Zunino was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 MLB Draft and, as recently as this April, teetered on the brink of joining the Mariners’ depressing list of recent first-round busts.
But Zunino appears to have found a comfort zone at the plate and has emerged as a potent run-production bat with 25 doubles and 25 homers through Friday in 124 games.
"I’ve really just put my focus on at-bats," he said, "just having quality at-bats. What I’ve done in making changes has let me be in the zone a little bit longer and be able to drive balls to the right side of the field."
Since returning May 23 from a 19-day remedial tour at Triple-A Tacoma, Zunino is batting .270 with a .349 on-base percentage and a .571 slugging percentage in 100 games. He also has all 25 of his homers and 62 of his 64 RBIs in that span.
"To overhaul your swing in the middle of the year is very difficult to do," Servais said. "He’s done it. There is no bigger positive this year than Mike Zunino."
An indication of Zunino’s growing importance to the lineup: He has a higher on-base percentage than Seager and a higher OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) than Cano.
***Haniger is just one of three rookies who manned a revamped outfield that should serve the Mariners well over the next several years.
Ben Gamel provides a lefty bat with speed and proved adept at playing either corner post. He ranked among the American League’s batting leaders earlier in the season before settling in around .280.
Guillermo Heredia flashed Gold Glove-level defense while playing left and center field and held his own at the plate until a nagging shoulder injury fueled a late dip when it coincided with a need to play every day after Dyson went down.
***A combination of desperation and necessity forced general manager Jerry Dipoto to bolster the rotation through a series of in-season trades. He came up with three under-the-radar moves that could pay major dividends in 2018.
Mike Leake was a such a flop in St. Louis that the Cardinals agreed to pay nearly one-third of the $55 million left on his contract, which runs through 2020, in an Aug. 30 deal while getting only minor-league infielder Rayder Ascanio in return.
Leake responded by going 3-1 with a 2.53 ERA in five starts and generally looked like the guy who effectively fronted Cincinnati’s rotation from 2010-15.
The Mariners previously acquired lefty Marco Gonzales from the Cardinals in a July 21 trade for minor-league outfielder Tyler O’Neill. The jury is out on that trade. Some scouts really like O’Neill.
But Gonzales is a former first-round pick (2013) who missed all of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. He returned pain-free this season and pitched 126 1/3 combined innings in the majors and minors.
"When you’re not healthy," he said, "all of your focus is on getting back to the mound. It’s really encouraging to take this into next year. I couldn’t be more excited."
If Gonzales experiences the second-year jump common to TJ patients, he could turn into a pleasant surprise.
Erasmo Ramirez returned to the Mariners in a July 28 trade for reliever Steve Cishek and emerged as the rotation’s most consistent performer over the final two months with quality starts in seven of his last nine outings.
A swingman for much of his career, Ramirez looms as a potential measuring stick next season as the Mariners assemble their rotation. If he’s in it, it might be a solid unit. If he returns to the bullpen, it should be a solid unit.
***A year ago, the Mariners entered the offseason by prioritizing the acquisition of a shortstop atop their list of needs. They got their man by obtaining Segura from Arizona in the same trade that netted Haniger.
Segura had been playing second base for the Diamondbacks, but he was a former shortstop, and the Mariners believed he could make a smooth transition back to his old position while continuing his recent career surge as an impact bat.
The numbers say they were right. Segura boosted his average to .300 by going 3-for-3 in Friday’s loss to the Angels, and his .349 OBP makes him a snug fit atop the lineup.
Segura’s value was only mitigated by injuries that forced him to the disabled list on two occasions for a combined 30 games. The injuries seem an outlier; Segura proved durable throughout his previous five seasons.
The Mariners must think so because they are betting on Segura again. On June 7, he agreed to a five-year extension through the 2022 season for $70 million.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners