SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — At around age 10, Hunter Pence acquired a Barry Bonds poster from his elementary school fair. It was then that Pence started choking up on his bat just as Bonds did in that prized picture that wound up on his wall.
Pence has become one of the San Francisco Giants’ most reliable hitters with his unique, funky style — and no question emulating baseball’s home run king has served him well for two decades since his days of youth baseball.
“I just grab it where it feels good,” Pence said. “I’ve always choked up, since about 10 or 11ish years old. I don’t remember exactly but I had a Barry Bonds poster that I bought and he was choked up, and I kind of copied him. He was one of my favorite players.”
Not only does Pence have a team-leading seven home runs while batting .291 with nine doubles and a triple, he is the only one on the reigning World Series champions to start all 38 games this season and play every inning.
Manager Bruce Bochy regularly checks with his right fielder to see if he might need a break. Nah, Pence just wants to play.
“That’s what I’m supposed to do,” he said before a 5-1 win against Atlanta on Sunday. “I get paid to play. I love to play. It’s an honor. I’ve been fortunate not to have injuries. I’m grateful to be able to play.”
The Giants are thrilled to have him for a full season this year, too.
Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez has watched Pence burn both his Braves and former Marlins teams over the years, with Pence playing for Houston, then Philadelphia, and now the Giants.
“He comes up with the darndest hits. He just beats you every time, him and (David) Eckstein,” Gonzalez said. “He’s not going to strike out, and you know he’s going to put the ball in play and something’s going to happen. Everybody wants to see these beautiful swings and these beautiful, fluid motions, but that’s not him, other than he beats you every time.”
Not that Pence is keeping track of his numbers against Gonzalez — whose compliment he said he greatly appreciated — or anybody else.
It is just mid-May, after all.
“I assess today. That’s all that matters,” Pence said. “Our goal is to get into the playoffs. It’s a long way away and we have to stick to the process. Every day’s a new day. I just try to go out there and compete.”
Pence is hitting .327 with five doubles, three homers and eight RBIs over his last 12 games going into the opener of a quick two-game series at Toronto starting today.
After coming to the Giants in a trade from the Phillies at last summer’s deadline, and making a big impact down the stretch and in the postseason, everybody in the Bay Area has been eager to see Pence for an entire year.
He is often quirky and awkward on the field, yet always thoughtful and polite off it.
Pence quietly sits at his locker alone before games along a far wall in the clubhouse, this past week reading “Sadaharu Oh: A Zen Way of Baseball,” on the Japanese Hall of Famer.
“There’s some good stuff,” Pence said.
He rides a motorized scooter to work, something he knows fascinates fans but he just considers his mode of transportation to and from work.
Pence would rather stick to baseball talk, though he doesn’t do much talking.
“He’s really swinging well. He hasn’t missed a game, he hasn’t missed an inning,” Bochy said. “You just have to love the way he plays the game.”
Pence had lunch with Bonds a couple of years back, and figures why not keep copying the former Giants slugger in the way he holds the bat. They have been in touch from time to time.
“I do appreciate the story. I’ve said this, so many times earlier when Bonds was playing, I was surprised more hitters didn’t choke up like Barry or try to emulate Barry with all the success that he had and the power that he had,” Bochy said. “You really didn’t see it, and it surprised me. You can choke up and be a good hitter.”
In terms of players choking up, Bochy believes it works.
“Yeah, sure it does,” he said. “You don’t see many hitters choke up. That was a big thing in Little League and high school, ‘choke up, choke up.’ I took a video of my son (Giants minor league pitcher, Brett) — I should have sent it in for one of the funniest videos — he kept missing the ball, so I said, ‘Brett, choke up,’ and he went (cough, cough). I went, ‘Ah, OK.’ He was only about 5, and that’s all he thought about for choke up.”
Pence, who turned 30 last month, has provided an immediate glimpse of just how steady he can be after first showing it during his short time with San Francisco last season.
He batted .219 with seven home runs and 45 RBIs in 59 games for the Giants while making a smooth transition to the expansive, tricky right field in pitcher friendly AT&T Park. He had 13 hits with four RBIs in the postseason, batting .286 (4 for 14) in a World Series sweep of Detroit.
Pence received a $13.8 million, one-year contract in January, and he is backing it up with a fast start.
After three impressive wins against the Braves over the weekend, the Giants are playing some of their best baseball — and Bochy believes the hitting is becoming contagious. Marco Scutaro, another midseason acquisition last season along with Pence, is riding a 12-game hitting streak with six straight multihit performances.
Pence has helped set the tone.
“He’s a great player and a great person and a great teammate,” Scutaro said. “I’m happy to see him doing good. It doesn’t matter how it looks, it matters if you get the job done. He’s a guy you want to have on your team. He’s ready to play every day, he’s not a selfish guy, he’s a team player. He’s in a good mood every day.”