As soon as he was called up, rookie Hunter Pence went on a hitting spree that turned around Houston's season
THE ASTROS are careful not to call gangly 24-year-old rookie Hunter Pence their savior, but there's no question the centerfielder, drafted at No. 64 by Houston in 2004, has provided the spark that put his team back into NL Central contention. After Pence's April 27 promotion from Triple A Round Rock, the Astros, then on a seven-game losing streak, won 11 of their first 17 with the newcomer in the lineup. Through Sunday, Pence was 17 for his last 29 and batting .364. Last week Giants manager Bruce Bochy called him "a wrecking crew" after Pence led Houston to its first home series win over San Francisco in eight years. (He went 8 for 11 in the series).
The struggling Astros, offensively lacking since reaching the 2005 World Series, have improved in every hitting category since Pence's arrival, catapulting from last to second in the division (21--22, 5 1/2 games behind the Brewers through Sunday). Better still, Pence's promotion practically coincided with Roger Clemens's decision to go to the Yankees and has softened the blow of that high-profile defection. Says general manager Tim Purpura, "[Pence] is as close to a five-tool player as we've had in a long time."
Pence's fairy-tale season began with a monstrous spring training, during which he hit .571. Even so, cautious Houston had Pence start the season in the minors, where he batted .341 before being brought up to replace Chris Burke, who was hitting .219.
Staying true to his character, the team-oriented Pence is unimpressed by his early stats, which included four home runs, six doubles, three triples and 16 RBIs in 20 games. "What does it matter if I hit 70 home runs if you don't make the playoffs?" he asks. "If I hit 20 home runs and help the team get over the hump, I'd rather be that guy."
Perhaps Pence's story has surprised some folks, especially those who noted early on the awkward way in which he hit (hunching over the plate), threw and ran ("weebling and wobbling," as Double A Corpus Christi manager Dave Clark describes it). But when Houston scout Rusty Pendergrass saw Pence play at Texarkana College in 2002, he spotted "plus" power and "plus, plus" speed. Pence has exceeded expectations, thanks to what the Astros call "off the charts" makeup.
Pence is a throwback who lives by the code: Always give it your all because there might be a kid in the stands who only has one chance to see you play. Last summer in Corpus Christi he apologized for not running out a pop-up, and he also showed up unexpectedly in Clark's office to tell him the team had stopped hustling. "It was really getting to me," says Pence, who teared up as he spoke to his manager.
In his first major league at bat Pence, a notorious free swinger, received a standing ovation after a 12-pitch strikeout, including six foul balls after falling behind 0 and 2 against Milwaukee's Dave Bush. But Pence showed his all out style in his next at bat. After being hit by the first pitch, he broke up a potential double play by barreling into Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks, keeping alive a four-run inning in the 10--1 victory that ended Houston's losing streak.
After the game Pence wasn't happy with himself, reporting to third base coach Doug Mansolino that he missed a couple signs. "That," Pence said sincerely, "is unacceptable." Since then he has easily impressed the Astros—and every kid in the stands.