AT&T Park — Hunter Pence has enjoyed a longer leash than almost anyone else hitting .196 with no home runs could get.
Two World Series titles and an All-Star appearance bought him that. A fan-favorite personality and a herky-jerky swing that’s nevertheless delivered 91 home runs in orange and black bought him that.
At some point this season, Pence needed to back up his reputation. Pence had to give manager Bruce Bochy something tangible to point to the next time someone asked why his struggling outfielder was still on the roster.
In the 11th inning of Sunday’s series finale against the San Diego Padres, down to his last strike, Pence had an opportunity to prove he had something left in the tank. He delivered a walk-off two-run single, turning a one-run deficit against the last-place team in the NL West into a 3-2 win.
“You gotta pull your weight here,” Pence said. “I just wanted to put a good swing on whatever [closer Brad Hand] threw up there. … The fans have shown me so much love, and to have the opportunity to pay it back even a little bit even if it’s just a small thing means a lot.”
During a disastrous season spent injured and ineffective, Pence has tried to remain positive. He spent extra time coming back from a thumb injury in order to make changes to his swing, knowing time might be running out. With the promotion of No. 5 prospect Austin Slater, there was some doubt that Pence could hang on.
There was little doubt Pence’s liner down the right field line would be enough to score two runs. The only question was how the struggling outfielder would celebrate. He chose to start yelling after rounding first base, before meeting shortstop Brandon Crawford for a bear hug near second. His shirt ripped wide open at some point in the fracas.
The breakthrough came one day after Bochy acknowledged how difficult it was for Pence, heretofore an everyday starter, to be relegated to a bench role. Bochy was “ecstatic” Pence took advantage of a rare start against Padres left-hander Eric Lauer.
“We’re all happy for [Pence],” Bochy said. “The thing we had to stay away from there was a strikeout and he battled his tail off.”
The victory pushed the Giants over .500 and helped them maintain pace with the first-place Diamondbacks, who also won Sunday.
Starter Dereck Rodriguez surrendered a leadoff home run to Manuel Margot but hardly anything after that, finishing with six strikeouts and one run allowed in a career-best seven innings. Rodriguez effectively mixed his four-seam fastball — which ran up to 95 mph– and a slower curveball that featured significant downward movement. Often, hitters chased the fastball above the strike zone before taking the curveball as it dropped in for a strike.
Rodriguez felt this was his best curveball this season.
“What a great job,” Bochy chimed in. “He gives up a leadoff home run and then settles down, gives us seven solid innings.”
Center fielder Gorkys Hernandez tied the game with a home run in the sixth inning. He has now hit eight home runs between May and June. Before that, he had nine blasts in 568 career at-bats.
The Giants had a chance to win it in the 10th after second baseman Joe Panik’s leadoff double down the right field line, but third baseman Alen Hanson struck out, pinch-hitter Slater grounded out and Hernandez struck out to end the frame.
Reliever Reyes Montoya walked Margot to start the top of the 11th, and Margot advanced to third with one out via a groundout and wild pitch. Left-hander Ty Blach then entered with two outs and gave up a go-ahead RBI single to Padres second baseman Cory Spangenberg.
In the bottom of the frame, though, Andrew McCutchen hit a double, Buster Posey and Crawford walked, and Pence earned a postgame mobbing after his game- and series-winning double.
It gave him something positive hang onto as the Giants enter an off day on Monday. He said he hopes it sparks a turnaround, though he insisted his recent at-bats haven’t been as bad as his numbers might indicate.
The whole team could use a rest. San Francisco has played 17 straight days ranging back to June 7.
So before the chaotic victory over the Padres, Bochy leaned against the back wall of the Giants dugout and visualized his Monday break. He imagined a fishing trip that might briefly take his mind away from the NL West playoff race, with the Giants battling to stick around the Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers in the division standings long enough for the imminent returns of injured starters Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija to matter. Their rivals aren’t losing many games these days.
Pence — unlikely to be seen near a quiet fishing expedition — ensured Bochy could enjoy his time off with his clutch hit. After the game, Bochy smiled when asked what his Monday looked like.
“We got nothing going on tomorrow.” Bochy said. “They’re off and it just gives them a chance to catch their breath. Me too. I’ll be out on the ocean somewhere.”