On Baseball: Phillies’ Latest Ex-Astro Adds Big Bat to Winning Lineup
Hunter Pence has hit .327 in his first 14 games since the Phillies traded for him. He has won over fans and teammates with his high-energy approach.
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“Sometimes I feel like a rookie all over again, those same feelings that you’ve got to go prove everything again,” Pence said.
Pence was brought in to bat behind the left-handed-hitting Ryan Howard, left, and Chase Utley. Batting fifth, he quickly hit three home runs.
The baseball glitterati were here Tuesday, gathering behind Section 141 at Citizens Bank Park to unveil a monument to a local treasure. The honoree came to the Phillies from Houston and inspired such adoration that fans financed the statue.
Harry Kalas, the Phillies broadcaster who died in 2009, is the man cast in bronze, not Hunter Pence. But lately, the fans seem just as smitten with Pence, their new right fielder. These are the glory days for one of baseball’s most tortured franchises, a place where players come to escape losing, not to wallow in it.
“This is nice,” Pence said Tuesday, “but I definitely don’t know what I did to deserve this.”
What he did was emerge at precisely the right time as precisely the right fit for baseball’s best team. Last month, he made his second All-Star team in three years for the Astros, a rebuilding team that often trades with the Phillies. The Phillies had the money, the motivation, the prospects and the aching need for a right-hander to bat behind the lefties Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.
On July 29, they traded four prospects for Pence, who has batted fifth every game and helped the Phillies go 12-2 before Tuesday night’s game with Arizona. He was hitting .327 for his new team, with three home runs and a .926 O.P.S.
“We were swinging the bats a little bit better even before we got him, but his addition obviously has helped us, balance-wise,” General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. “I don’t know if it’s coincidental or whether he’s actually having a direct impact, but we’re winning games when he’s with us, and that helps.”
Pence replaced the rookie Domonic Brown, who will probably take over next season for the veteran left fielder Raul Ibanez. Brown has alluring potential, but developing talent can be frustrating during a pennant race. The team, and the fans, needed Pence.
Already, Web sites sell T-shirts with slogans like “Pence-ylvania” and “Good Game, Let’s Go Eat” — Pence’s response to an interviewer’s question after scoring the winning run in extra innings July 31. Just before the final hit, center fielder Shane Victorino had told Pence he was hungry.
“That’s why it came into my head, and it turned into a catch phrase,” Pence said. “There’s a lot of clever people. The signs are out of this world. They come up with all sorts of funny stuff.”
On his Twitter account, @HunterPence3, Pence has posted photos of fans posing with a giant cardboard fork bearing his slogan. Before warm-ups in the top of the first inning, he takes a few seconds to shake his glove several times to the fans in the right-field stands. He used Monday’s off-day for an autograph signing in the suburbs.
Amaro, a bat boy for the Phillies’ 1980 championship team, compared Pence’s appeal with that of Pete Rose and Larry Bowa. A frenetic approach connotes energy and effort, making it easy to relate.
“He has some of those things you can’t teach in baseball players, the amount of pop he has when the ball comes off his bat,” said Phillies reliever Brad Lidge, who also played with Pence in Houston in 2007. “You can tell someone to swing as hard as they can every time, but no one actually does that. He does. And the way he runs, he’s a little unorthodox, but he runs as fast as he can every single time. He’s kind of a max-tempo guy all the time, and that’s exciting to watch.”
At times, all the straining and striving can look like a tangled mass of joints and limbs and knee-high socks. When Pence was a rookie in 2007, Lidge said, teammates thought he was out of control. The more Pence played, though, the more they realized he is actually in tune with his body — just in an off-key sort of way.
The Astros’ scouts recognized this in 2004, when Houston drafted Pence in the second round out of the University of Texas-Arlington. Now that Pence has left Houston, he said, he finds himself even more eager.
“Sometimes I feel like a rookie all over again, those same feelings that you’ve got to go prove everything again,” Pence said. “Even though Jimmy Rollins said, ‘Hey, we know you’re good, you don’t have to go prove anything,’ you still feel that. But I’m just thrilled to be a part of it.”
Lidge and Roy Oswalt also came here in trades with the Astros, the team Kalas broadcast before the Phillies hired him in 1971. Kalas stayed in the booth until his death in 2009, and before Steve Carlton and Rollins unveiled the statue Tuesday, a montage of his greatest calls played on the scoreboard.
It ended with Kalas presiding over the championship celebration in 2008 — before Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Oswalt, Ibanez and Pence joined the team. The fans are perhaps even more devoted now, selling out every game for more than two years.
“They’re involved,” Pence said. “That’s everything you want your fans to be, is to be involved and to care. As a professional, you have to hold yourself accountable to succeed every day and give everything you have. I love that about them. They’ve got your back, and when you’re succeeding, they’re going to love you.”
And in times of failure? Pence would not know about that.