San Francisco Giants

Hunter Pence returns to action in rehab stint with River Cats

San Francisco Giants Hunter Pence signs autographs before his first rehab game for the Sacramento River Cats on Friday, May 8, 2015, at Raley Field in West Sacramento.
San Francisco Giants Hunter Pence signs autographs before his first rehab game for the Sacramento River Cats on Friday, May 8, 2015, at Raley Field in West Sacramento. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Hunter Pence had to wait a little more than two months after fracturing his left forearm March 5 to play in another game. The first fly ball hit to him Friday night at Raley Field sliced toward the line in shallow right, and Pence’s hat came flying off as he raced to make the catch. An inning later, on his first game swing since his injury, the Giants’ rehabbing right fielder drove in a run.

Pence began his much-anticipated rehab assignment with the River Cats on Friday night, displaying all the energy one might have expected from the spirited outfielder after a two-month layoff. His pant legs customarily pulled up to the knees, left arm snug in an orange sleeve, Pence started in right field and batted third for Sacramento while taking perhaps the biggest step yet in his road back to the Giants.

Playing five innings in his first rehab game, Pence got involved immediately by running down Tim Smalling’s fly ball in the top of the first. In the bottom of the inning, he came up against Albuquerque Isotopes right-hander Chad Bettis with a man on third and no outs. Pence dug his right foot into the back of the batter’s box, took two pitches and then hit a fly ball to right field, deep enough to score Ryan Lollis for a sacrifice fly.

It drew a loud reaction from a Raley Field crowd that cheered nearly every move Pence made. The fans applauded loudly again when Pence came up in the third and grounded out to shortstop, running hard down the line before being thrown out by a step. In the second inning, Pence sprinted in from right field to back up first base on a groundout. He struck out swinging in his third and final plate appearance.

In short, Pence showed little hesitation returning to game action for the first time since a Corey Black pitch broke his arm in the first week of spring training games. Because he had missed most of spring, though, and due to the length of his layoff, Giants manager Bruce Bochy indicated this week the length of Pence’s rehab stint – as yet undetermined – could be significant.

“We’ll monitor this thing, but it’s going to be spring training for him,” Bochy said. “We’ve got to build him up to nine innings; he’s got to see live pitching. It’s going to take a little while.”

Fans at Raley Field were happy to welcome Pence, crowding the railing along the third-base line near the River Cats’ dugout well before Friday’s game. Pence entered the field around 6:35 p.m., waving and smiling to the crowd, and spent about 10 minutes signing autographs and posing for pictures before hitting the field for pregame warmups. As he sometimes does at AT&T Park, he began by jogging out to center field and tapping the wall.

Thursday night, Pence had admitted that, given his long absence, he wasn’t sure how many minor-league games he would need to get up to speed. He said his left arm is still not 100 percent, and that he has never missed this much time to an injury and therefore has no frame of reference.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen when we go play,” Pence said. “I think I’m ready. We’ll see. Until you get out there and play, who knows?”

The Giants felt Pence was swinging more freely and with more power this week during his batting practice sessions, and Pence agreed that he’s “able to swing pretty hard.” He has also been taking fly balls and grounders in the outfield – his glove arm is the one that’s healing – and said defense is “manageable.”

“I feel confident it’s not going to be a factor in performance,” Pence said of his arm.

“The progress has been daily. A couple times it would get sore after doing things the first time. It was a process, and feeling strong enough to compete and compete well.”

The Giants originally estimated Pence’s return at 6 to 8 weeks, and Bochy said Thursday that Pence has “been antsy to get things going and get back to playing.”

Pence said he has tried to make the most of the time by “trying to bring whatever knowledge, whatever encouragement, whatever enthusiasm, and enjoy the work on getting back as fast as I can.”

“I gave everything I had every day” during the recovery process, Pence said.

Friday night, he finally was free to do so again in a baseball game.

Call The Bee’s Matt Kawahara, (916) 321-1015.

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