Some were surprised when Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto didn’t make a deal for a slugger at the trade deadline this month.
But Dipoto knew the Mariners would be adding a big bat when Mitch Haniger returned from the injured list.
Haniger hit a three-run homer in the first inning Thursday, and the Mariners held on to defeat the visiting Cleveland Guardians 3-1 in the first meeting of the season between the American League playoff contenders.
The teams will continue their four-game series Friday night in Seattle as they meet seven times in 11 days.
“This is what I guess we envisioned. As a player you want it to happen sooner. You’re hoping for this season every year,” Haniger said of the Mariners’ quest to snap their 21-year postseason drought, the longest in North America’s four major professional sports. “But we’re right in the mix.”
Haniger started the season on the COVID-related restricted list and then missed more than three months with a high ankle sprain.
Since returning Aug. 6, the former All-Star is batting .313 with four homers and 10 RBIs. That total includes a two-run homer in Tuesday’s 4-2 victory against the Washington Nationals as well as Thursday’s deciding blast.
“To see him come up with a big swing in the first, how can you not be geeked to go out there and pitch after he gets you a two-run lead,” said Mariners left-hander Marco Gonzales, who allowed a first-inning run but no more through six in the series opener. “I can’t ask for much more than that.”
Added Mariners manager Scott Servais: “Timeliness of home runs are huge. Three-run homers are beautiful. They’re awesome. Whatever you want to call them.”
The Mariners improved to 51-0 when entering the eighth inning with the lead, the lone team in the major leagues to be undefeated in that situation.
Andres Munoz came on with two outs in the eighth inning and struck out Cleveland star Jose Ramirez, then fanned two more in the ninth for his third save of the season.
“I saw 102 (mph), and then a slider. That was pretty filthy stuff,” Cleveland manager Terry Francona said of Munoz. “I don’t think you have to be in the game for 40 years to know that that was pretty special stuff.”
Friday’s game will feature right-handers Shane Bieber (8-7, 3.10 ERA) of Cleveland against the Mariners’ Logan Gilbert (10-5, 3.52).
Bieber had won four consecutive starts until suffering a 2-0 defeat to the visiting Chicago White Sox on Saturday, when he allowed one earned run on five hits in 6 1/3 innings. Over his past five starts, the 2020 AL Cy Young Award winner has a 1.62 ERA. Bieber is 1-2 with a 3.75 ERA in four career starts against Seattle.
Gilbert will seek his first victory since July 5 at San Diego. He’s 0-2 with a 5.61 ERA over his past eight starts, though half of those have come against the division-leading New York Yankees and Houston Astros. Gilbert is 1-1 with a 4.22 ERA in two starts against Cleveland.