AT&T PARK — On Sunday, the day before the San Francisco Giants’ final homestand of the season, former third base coach Tim Flannery tweeted out a photo of himself and outfielder Hunter Pence, sitting on the top of the bench in the Dodger Stadium visitor’s dugout.
“Every night 20 minutes before game we met on the bench. No one out prepared him. This I will miss forever. Thank you Hunter for knowing all it takes to win. #forevergrateful” Flannery wrote.
What followed over the next few hours were five more photos of the manic, frenetic right fielder. There was Pence with a black eye. There was Pence popping up after sliding into home, with Pablo Sandoval cheering behind him. The final image: Pence and Flannery staring intensely at one another in the dugout. Flannery quoted Leonard Cohen: “Everything has a crack in it, that’s how the light gets in.”
In a season that has brought out the worst kind of emotion among baseball fans — apathy — Pence has been a rare light in the final year of his contract, and potentially his final days in San Francisco.
On a night when the Giants offense once again fell silent against another below-average pitcher in the San Diego Padres’ Bryan Mitchell (owner of a 6.16 ERA), the only real noise made came from the ovations for Pence by the intimate crowd of 35,426, as the 35-year old went 2-for-4 in a 5-0 loss.
“It means a lot,” Pence said. “I’ve really thoroughly enjoyed my time here, really loved working for this organization and this team, this city. Everything about it has been an absolute delight for me, getting to play the game I love around such incredible individuals, incredible fans.”
At the end of his worst professional season, at the end of his contract, Pence is getting ready to play winter ball to see if he can revive his career. In the Giants clubhouse Monday, Pence considered the series of Flannery tweets, seemingly signaling his end in the Bay. He smiled.
“There’s a lot of people that are extremely prepared, and it was a lot of fun working with Flan,” Pence said, his voice quivering just slightly. “We connected on a lot of thoughts towards the game, a lot of outside-the-box thinking. It was really a joy to work with him.”
Joy is the operative word when considering Pence’s unlikely career. Picked in the second round of the 2004 draft out of the University of Texas-Arlington, Pence arrived as a flailing, awkward, athlete for whom every movement seemed to be wasted movement. Yet, he has carved out a 12-year career, nearly 1,700 hits, three All-Star appearances and two World Series titles.
The Padres took the early lead — for good, as it would turn out — on back-to-back-to-back hits in the second, and added another run on a pair of hits in the third, and a third on a Jose Pirela homer in the fourth off of starter Derek Holland. They added two in the sixth against reliever Ty Blach.
In the meantime, Pence grounded out twice to the pitcher in his first two plate appearances. Each time he came up, though, the crowd shook itself awake. When Pence flipped a single over first to put men at the corners with two outs in the fifth, it was as if the Giants had tied the game after a gutty comeback — just a few decibels short of a game-winner. The same noise greeted him when he got his second hit of the night — a one-out single in the eighth.
At the start of what could he his last homestand, he started, led off and played right field — just as he did during his salad days with the club.
“I’m definitely going to cherish it, and moving forward with the uncertainty,” Pence said. “It could be, but it could not be.”
Pence began the season hitting just .172 in his first 17 games, of which he started 15. He had sprained his thumb while diving to make a play on April 3, but played through it. By April 20, it had become too much to bear, and he went on the disabled list. He didn’t return to the majors until June, after he recovered and spend another month down in Triple-A re-engineering his swing with Mac Williamson’s personal swing coach.
When he returned, the 35-year old found himself the odd man out in a crowded outfield filled with youngsters like Alen Hanson, Steven Duggar, Austin Slater and eventually Chris Shaw. Yet, every time Pence has stepped into the on-deck circle as a late-inning pinch hitter, or trotted out to left as a defensive replacement, he’s gotten consistently loud ovations.
“You know, I try to just embrace the moment,” he said. “I don’t want to clear anything out of my head. I just have my focus, try to play with the Christmas spirit, and the love of baseball, like any little kid. I still feel like that kid.”
His ebullient energy sparked the 2012 team to a World Series run after he was traded from the Philadelphia Phillies, despite the fact that he only hit .219 with San Francisco in 59 games that year. In 2013, he hit .283 with 27 homers and 99 RBIs. In his last All-Star season, 2014, Pence played all 162 games, hit .277 and slugged 20 home runs as the Giants won their third World Series in five years. His 650 at-bats that season led the league.
“It’s hard putting into words what he’s meant to us,” said manager Bruce Bochy. “This guy, his tenure here has been just one of my most pleasurable players I’ve ever had. He’s just such a pro.”
Injuries limited him to 52 games in 2015, but as San Francisco made another playoff push in 2016, he hit .289 — his best in a full season since he hit .314 in 2011 — with 13 homers in 106 games. Last year, in the midst of a historically-bad 98-loss season, Pence hit .260 and played in 134 games, hitting 13 homers and driving in 67 while playing his typically-adventurous style in right field.
“He’s always trying to help his teammates,” Bochy said. “He pulls for them. He brings that every day. It’s not a one-day thing with him. Incredible attitude, and that has a lot do do with why he’s had an incredible career.”
Every year, Pence has taken it upon himself to gather all the first-year players in Giants spring training camp, and give them a pep talk, letting them know that they belong, and letting them know what their future San Francisco teammates expect of them.
“He really makes an effort to get with the guys, the players, he wants to mentor them, be the right type of player and also build their confidence, be who they are,” Bochy said. “For a manager, you’re looking for leadership within that clubhouse. He’s always provided that for us.”
Pence still wants to play next season. He’s going to re-engineer his swing again for a month after the season ends, and then it’s off to winter ball for the first time in his career. Maybe someone will notice down there. Maybe they won’t. For now, Pence is taking in all those cheers.
“I definitely feel a lot of love,” Pence said. “It’s pretty special. It’s pretty special every time I go into the on-deck circle. Fans that are nearby, some of the comments — a lot of the comments — they get pretty real, and it gets pretty emotional. It means a lot to me.”
Bochy, for one, thinks Pence should be able to play somewhere next year. Pence is healthy now and runs well, Bochy said, and can still run into one at the plate, as he did last week in San Diego.
“He gets his timing back, I wouldn’t be surprised by anything that guy does,” Bochy said.
With five games left and the Giants assured their second straight losing season, Bochy said he’ll play Pence as much as he can.
“I’ve really been very fortunate,” Pence said. “Just trying to continue to do it the way I’ve always done it — be prepared, go as hard as I can, and love every minute of it.”