Was it just four years ago that Hunter Pence was knocking baseballs all around — or out of — Applebee's Park?
Yep. And now the former Lexington Legends center fielder is one of the hottest players in the big leagues.
Playing right field for the Legends' parent club, the Houston Astros, Pence led the National League in May (minimum 21 games), batting .388 (38-for-98).
"I'm kind of just finding holes here and there," Pence said during the Astros' recent series at Cincinnati. "It comes with more experience, more learning. You put it in play. Right now, I've been putting it in play and finding holes.
"Before, I'd been more of a guy who tried to get the head (of the bat) out too much, afraid to get jammed. But sometimes it's a good thing. Then, when you do get the head out, good things happen."
Pence hit safely in 22 of 27 games in May. He had hitting streaks of three, four, five, seven and two games — and no back-to-back hitless games.
Having turned 26 in April, Pence has plenty of time to improve.
"One of the best young players in the game, no question about it," Astros Manager Cecil Cooper said of Houston's top draft pick of 2004. "I love his drive for the game, his focus. I mean, he's going to be a star, ain't no question about it.
"Time and maturity, that's all he needs. His skill level is there. His skills are almost off the charts."
Pence has been honing his skills since he was a 6-year-old in Waxahachie, Texas, playing against kids two years older.
He went on to compete in baseball, football and track at Arlington High School (Texas); one year of baseball at Texarkana Junior College (.395, 12 home runs, 33 stolen bases, All-Conference, All-Region, dean's list); and two years at Texas-Arlington (2004 Southland Conference Player of the Year, hitting a league-best .395).
Success continued in the Astros system.
A short season at Tri-City, followed by a season split between Lexington and High-A Salem, then Double-A Corpus Christi in 2006. He spent just 25 games with Triple-A Round Rock in 2007 and was promoted April 27 by the Astros, for whom he played 108 games.
His minor-league totals included a .304 average, 70 homers, 243 RBI and 31 stolen bases over 333 games.
Although he was promoted from the Legends with about five weeks left in the 2005 season, Pence still earned rookie of the year honors in the South Atlantic League.
He hit .338 over 80 games with Lexington, tying the franchise record of 25 homers and driving in 60 runs.
"He has the ability to make adjustments, that's for sure," Cooper said. "I can just go back to his first year here (Houston), there was some things I saw him do that he's not doing anymore. Over the course of last year, you could see him making progress. ... There's a small growth that he'll probably go through, but he's pretty close to a finished product."
"Sometimes pitchers would use his aggressiveness against him, and I think it took him pretty much all of that first year, and he just went on natural ability," Cooper said. "But last year I saw him make some strides in that area. And this year it's like lightning. If he keeps doing that, kind of going up this way, it's off the charts what he can do."
In 2007, Pence hit .322 with 17 homers, 69 RBI and 11 steals over 108 games with the Astros. His first big-league homer, at St. Louis, came with the bases loaded.
Pence's 246 total bases were the most by an Astros rookie since Hall of Famer Joe Morgan had 251 in 1965. Pence set Astros rookie records for extra-base hits (56), doubles (30), average (.322) and slugging (.539). He was the first rookie to lead his league in hitting at the All-Star break (.342).
In 2008, he posted career highs of 157 games, 78 runs, 160 hits, 34 doubles, 25 homers, 83 RBI and 40 walks.
"This guy could be, potentially, a 25-25 (homers-steals) kind of guy, drive in 100 runs," Cooper said. "Last year, I saw his growth in the outfield. He went from center to right. He could have been an All-Star because he played that well."
Having committed six errors in 308 total chances as a rookie center fielder, Pence made one error in 357 chances, mostly in right field, last year. He tied Matt Kemp of the Dodgers for the league lead in outfield assists, 16.
This season, through Sunday, Pence ranked among the NL's top 10 in batting (.341), on-base percentage (.416), hits (60), multi-hit games (19) and outfield assists (4).
Winner of the "Good Guy of the Year" award from Houston baseball writers last season, Pence has not let his success go to his head.
"I'm very grateful and fortunate," he said. "Every day I'm just happy to be here because it's my dream. I'm a fan as well as a player, and I don't want to take any of it for granted."