Giants right fielder Hunter Pence brought his high-socked, high-energy playing style to bear on AT&T Park for the first time Tuesday night since Game 5 of last year’s World Series. It was evident – starting with the cheer that arose during his customary pregame jog to the center-field wall – that his presence had been missed during his six-week hiatus because of a broken arm.
“I think everybody’s happy to see him back in the lineup,” pitcher Tim Hudson said after the Giants’ 2-0 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers. “He’s our mascot. He’s a guy that makes things work for us and keeps our mojo going in the dugout.”
Unlike a mascot, of course, Pence directly affects what happens on the field, and it was not totally coincidental the Giants had won their three games before Wednesday with Pence back in the lineup. Over their final two games in Cincinnati, Pence went 4 for 8 with a home run and five runs. They were Pence’s first at-bats against major-league pitching in six months, leading manager Bruce Bochy to say that Pence “came out of the barn with his heels kicking.”
Pence went hitless Tuesday night, but he made a running catch of Adrian Gonzalez’s 410-foot drive to right-center that helped preserve a 1-0 Giants lead in the sixth inning. Hudson, who was pitching at the time, said afterward, “I’m not sure many people can get there and make that play on that one, except for him.”
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Still, Hudson’s use of “mascot” wasn’t baseless. Certainly, Pence’s frenetic movements and unconventional hitting and throwing motions draw the eye, but what his teammates often cite is the positivity that Pence exudes and that infiltrates the clubhouse. Bochy described Pence as “one of those guys that it’s not just the talent he brings, but who he is, his personality, his energy; he makes us a better ballclub.”
Indicative of Pence’s importance to the Giants is what Bochy said he told Pence when it became clear the right fielder would miss at least the first month of the season. “We held the fort down,” Bochy said Tuesday, “and that’s what I told him we would try to do – keep this thing going.” The Giants lost 10 of 14 games to start the season, but had pulled back to .500, at 18-18, by the time Pence returned Saturday.
“I thought the guys did a great job, particularly after that start,” Bochy said. “We could have buried ourselves, but they fought back. … That’s been the character of this ballclub. We lost Angel (Pagan) last year, going back to Melky (Cabrera in 2012), (Matt) Cain, all these guys. They don’t focus on it; they still go out there and play the game.”
Having Pence back has changed the Giants’ dynamic. He batted cleanup Wednesday against Dodgers left-hander Brett Anderson, which moved Buster Posey to third and Pagan to the leadoff spot for the first time this season. Pagan had made his previous 35 starts batting third, but Bochy said Wednesday’s configuration could become the norm against left-handed pitching.
After a 4-10 start, the Giants won 17 of 25 entering Wednesday, including all three games with Pence.
During his recovery process, Pence was often with the team and made a point of staying involved. “Even when he wasn’t playing,” catcher Andrew Susac said, “we’d give up a couple runs, ‘All right guys, let’s get ’em back!’ He’s just very positive. It really is crazy how much energy and positive mindset he brings to his team.”
Second baseman Joe Panik said Pence is a constant practitioner of positive reinforcement who “believes in just the power of the mind.”
“It’s just, ‘You’re the best out there, you’re a great hitter,’” Panik said. “He’s not saying that every time he sees you, but he’ll say it when he deems necessary.”