Ailene Voisin

Opinion: Pence’s poke puts pall on Kauffman

Hunter Pence’s first-inning home run – on James Shield’s 19th pitch – gave the Giants momentum and a lead they would not relinquish in their Game 1 victory.
Hunter Pence’s first-inning home run – on James Shield’s 19th pitch – gave the Giants momentum and a lead they would not relinquish in their Game 1 victory. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Hunter Pence had a miserable September. He wasn’t enjoying such an outstanding postseason, either. No home runs. Three runs batted in. He has received more press these past few weeks for his clubhouse cheerleading and amiable nature than his on-field accomplishments.

But that mighty swing Tuesday night? That unique, quirky, giant swing in the opening minutes of the World Series? Against Royals ace James Shields?

That redirected everyone’s attention. That changed the plot. For the region’s long-suffering fans, that first inning was pure buzz kill. They arrived en masse and transformed the ballpark into a sea of royal blue. The early mood was upbeat, loving, longing. The plan was to relive 1985 – all except the part about the Kings splitting that same year for Sacramento – and reign again as champs.

But within a matter of minutes, a matter of pitches, a sense of gloom descended over the place.

Gregor Blanco sent the fifth pitch into left, a bloop single for sure, but enough to put the pressure on Shields. After the big right-hander known as “Big Game” James got Joe Panik on a flyout, he relinquished a single to Buster Posey and an RBI double down the right-field line to Pablo Sandoval.

Then it was Pence, on the 19th pitch of the game, whacking a fastball, fat part of the plate, and ruining the Royals evening. Officially, the ball traveled 403 feet, a few yards from the stadium’s famous fountains. But for the stunned Royals fans, that ball is still out there somewhere, a crushing blow to their chances, a huge lift for the visitors.

Teams that score three or more runs in the first inning have prevailed in every World Series. That means 10 times. And count Giants manager Bruce Bochy among those who believe in karma and fate and, yes, momentum.

“Momentum, I think, is underrated,” he said before his club had secured the 7-1 victory at Kauffman Stadium. “Whether you’re a pitcher or a hitter, if you’re having success, it just makes life easier when you win some games and think you’re going to win some games. Momentum is a beautiful thing.”

Pence, who batted .165 during the last month of the regular season, and managed one hit in his final 28 at bats, said he approached his initial plate appearance as he always does: Concentrate fully, but expect the unexpected.

Shields, who moments earlier had benefited from a terrific relay from right field that prevented Posey from scoring, throws fastballs, curveballs, and is most effective with his changeup. But he never seemed to command his offspeed stuff and was erratic with his fastball, and against the Giants free-swing right fielder during that fateful at-bat, he threw a fastball waist-high, right down the middle.

“Very rarely do people get into patterns in this game,” Pence said. “The only thing I’m trying to see is the timing of his pitches. In my mind, you’re watching his fastball, and OK, it’s about this time. You’re watching his offspeed, and OK, it’s about this time. But when you get in the box, it’s different than any angle you’ll see.”

And about what he heard? Or didn’t hear? After the ball cleared the right-field fence, the ballpark was stunned silent. Perhaps the fans will recover. They haven’t had much experience in these matters these past few decades. It will be hard for Jake Peavy to duplicate the effort of Giants ace Madison Bumgarner, who quieted the Royals hitters through seven innings and received terrific support from his teammates. Blanco chased down a drive, Sandoval struck again with two hits and two RBIs, and Pence tagged Shields again for a double in the fourth.

But that first blow was an ear-splitter, for the Giants and their important early lead, and for Pence, who sat alone in the clubhouse afterward, staring at the replays on a TV.

“It was really loud in my head,” he said afterward, when recalling his home run sprint, “and I say this, and I truly mean it. Sometimes my brain, in my mind, there is an emptiness. I don’t know what’s going on.”

What’s going on is this: Giants lead the World Series 1-0.

Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.

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