Marc Rzepczynski didn’t need to watch. The reliever knew, just knew, his eighth-inning pitch to the Rangers’ Joey Gallo on Sunday had been crushed for still another tiebreaking, spirit-sapping home run.
“There was no doubt,” Rzepczynski said. “If you saw my reaction, I put my head down and went, ‘Oh ... I can’t say what I said in my head, but I thought for sure it was a homer.”
When Rzepczynski mustered the stomach to inspect the damage, he saw Mitch Haniger make a precisely timed leap to catch the ball over the right field wall. As the Safeco Field crowd acknowledged Haniger’s effort with a standing ovation, Rzepczynski pointed his left index finger toward the acrobat in the outfield.
He’d only just begun.
When Haniger returned to the dugout, his new best friend hugged him, hugged him again, and then promised to pay for a steak dinner at a restaurant of the rookie’s choice.
Had Haniger done nothing else than steal a homer during the 8-7 victory that assured the Mariners a series sweep, his case for AL Rookie of the Month would have continued to gain momentum. But he did much more.
Haniger’s three-run homer off Texas starter Cole Hamels put the Mariners back in a game that found them facing an early 6-1 deficit. A few hours later, in a revealing ninth-inning confrontation against veteran closer Sam Dyson, he coaxed the bases-loaded walk that tied the score at 7.
Given his limited exposure to pressure moments at baseball’s highest level, Haniger’s RBI walk might have been more impressive to manager Scott Servais than either the homer or the catch.
“We talk a lot about the ability to control the strike zone,” Servais said. “And within that, you have to trust the guy behind you. If you don’t get your pitch, you keep working the pitcher and grinding, trusting the guy behind you.
“It says a lot for the maturity and the type of player he is now, and he’s got a chance to get even better.”
When general manager Jerry Dipoto obtained Haniger from the Diamondbacks on Thanksgiving Eve, shortstop Jean Segura was the big-ticket name in the trade for Taijuan Walker and Ketel Marte. And though the only disappointment about Segura regards his tender hamstring, the inclusion of Haniger clearly upgraded the move from a sound deal to a steal.
At 26, Haniger has the five classic tools for a position player — run, throw, field, hit and hit with power — and a burning determination to excel in each phase.
“We’ve liked everything about Mitch since we saw him on the first day of spring training,” said Servais. “How he goes about his business, how he does his homework. He’s as prepared as anybody we have, and he’s got a lot of confidence.”
We’ll have to trust Servais on that one, because Haniger is not a boastful type.
“I’m just want to keep working and try to get better,” is Haniger’s typical response to a question abut himself. And yet he’s not surprised at the numbers he’s putting up eight months after struggling during a late-August promotion last season.
“I know what I capable of,” he said Sunday. “I’m not a very cocky guy, but I believe in myself. I know I can play. My confidence level never wavered last year, even though I didn’t play as well as I would have liked. But I kind of got to see what the league is like, and what the competition is like. I knew I could play well up here.”
Play well? He’s playing like an emerging superstar who earns steak dinners from grateful teammates. No word on the restaurant Haniger will choose, but there’s good chance his meal will be served with Texas Toast.