SAN FRANCISCO -- The conversation, as Hunter Pence recalled it Tuesday, was brief. Giants Manager Bruce Bochy saw Pence that afternoon and asked, “Are you ready?” To which the right fielder responded, “I’m ready to go.”
That quickly, the San Francisco Giants regained their dynamo, the player credited more than any other with infusing the clubhouse and lineup with energy. Moreover, they reclaimed a hitter who would make key contributions with the bat in their next two wins – even though he went nearly five weeks without facing live pitching.
Tuesday night, Pence ended a 30-game absence caused by wrist tendinitis and drove in two runs in the Giants’ 3-0 win over the New York Mets. Friday, he collected just one of the Giants’ 22 hits in their 15-2 rout of the Philadelphia Phillies, but it was a grand slam that capped an eight-run fourth inning and knocked Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels out of the game. In a 4-1 loss to the Mets on Wednesday, Pence had two hits and drove in the Giants’ only run.
“Really impressive how he’s come back,” Bochy said of the former Lexington Legends star after Friday night’s game. “He’s using the whole field, too, and it looks like he’s seeing the ball really well. You’d think he’s going to have some rust.”
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The Giants activated Pence from the disabled list without first sending him on a rehabilitation assignment – standard to let hitters regain their timing in the minors after a long layoff – because they believed his mere presence could benefit them immediately. Pence, meanwhile, felt he could add more than just a shot of adrenaline.
“I just knew I was ready (to hit),” Pence said Friday. “I’d been working on my timing, training my eye with the tennis ball machine. I knew I was ready to see the ball.”
The tennis ball machine is just what it sounds like, a device that fires tennis balls at high speeds. While resting his troublesome left wrist last month, Pence stood in every day against that machine, taking swings using only his right hand to simulate the at-bats against live pitchers that he was missing.
Chad Chop, the Giants’ left-handed batting practice pitcher, operated the machine and said Pence hit against the machine about 15 minutes each day. The company that makes the machine, Chop said, states it can be cranked up to deliver tennis balls at 130 mph. Pence would set up 50 feet away and take one-handed swings with his game bat, “which is pretty impressive in itself,” Chop said.
Pence said he did the same drill earlier this year when he was on the disabled list because of a fractured left forearm, noting it helped him feel confident in the batter’s box when he rejoined the Giants for the first time this season May 16. That time, Pence had played in a few minor-league rehab games first. Still, he recorded four hits in his first two games against major-league pitching and was batting .282 when the Giants shut him down in early June because of the tendinitis.
“Hunter’s a different animal,” Chop said. “He’s a competitor, and he’s very mentally tough. If someone says it can’t be done, he’s going to do it twice.”
Pence’s impact on the Giants can be expressed in their record when he plays this season – 14-7 entering Saturday, compared to 30-36 without him. All-Star catcher Buster Posey said there is “a noticeable effect” when Pence is active.
“He’s a presence in the lineup; I think the other team feels it,” Posey said. “The stuff like driving in runs are important and big, but it goes a little deeper than that, I think, from a mental standpoint for us and the opposing team.
“Even like when another team is preparing for the game, when Hunter’s in the lineup, there’s a different dynamic to it, if that makes sense. It just puts more pressure when you have an impact bat like his – it puts more pressure on the other team from the get-go.”
Opponents have a tough time devising a strategy of how to pitch Pence, Bochy said, because there’s no obvious approach to getting him out. Bochy likens Pence to Nori Aoki and former Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval in their ability to beat a good pitch with reaction, cover a wide area of the plate and foil the best of plans.
Even so, Posey said he finds Pence’s hitting of the past few days “extremely impressive and surprising to me,” given the amount of time Pence missed, and that “it speaks to his work ethic that he had while he was on the DL.”
“I think with him, it’s belief as much as anything,” Posey said. “He believed that he was ready. And he’s been playing in the big leagues for quite some time now – I think he has earned that, I guess, right to know when he’s ready or not.”
Was there something specific that convinced him?
“I don’t know,” Pence said Friday. “I just felt good.”