The Los Angeles Dodgers were the final opponent last season for the San Francisco Giants, who turned their season finale into an unofficial Hunter Pence Day.
They were saying goodbye to the beloved outfielder who played seven seasons there and helped them win two World Series. His contract was up, and he wasn’t coming back.
Based on Pence’s numbers and injury issues, the Dodgers’ third-base coach wasn’t sure Pence would be back on a baseball field again. So, as the Giants came off the field after the Dodgers batted one inning, Chris Woodward made it a point to speak to Pence.
“He came running by me, and I said, ‘Hey, man, if this happens to be it, you had a hell of a career. I really enjoyed watching you play,’” said Woodward, hired five weeks later as Texas Rangers manager.
“He goes, ‘I’m not done!’”
If anything, Pence’s career has been reborn after the first two months this season with the Rangers.
He has exceeded all expectations and quieted those who doubted that he could reinvent his swing. The fourth outfielder to open the season, Pence has become an everyday player and one of the Rangers’ top run producers.
Not even he was sure how his season would go.
“I didn’t know necessarily what was going to happen,” said Pence, the Arlington High and UT-Arlington product. “There have been a lot of people that have made that adjustment and done really well. So far it’s looking good, but there’s a long way to go and I’ve got to continue to improve.”
Pence was in the starting lineup for the eighth straight game Monday as the Rangers opened a three-game series against the Seattle Mariners. He entered tied with Joey Gallo for the team lead in RBIs (35) and second in homers (11) behind Gallo (15).
Pence is a bona-fide candidate to be the American League Player of the Month. He entered Memorial Day tied for the league lead in RBIs (22) and was second in home runs (8) and OPS (1.117).
He’s been clutch, too, all season, batting .342 with runners in scoring position. In a season when the Rangers have struggled on the road, Pence is tied for the league lead for road RBIs (26).
His numbers aren’t what’s driving him, and he’s not in awe of them as many others around the game are.
“Honestly, I’m not paying attention to results other than constant adjustments in game and playing to win each day,” Pence said. “I would say I’m over the moon to be playing the game of baseball in the big leagues doing what I love. I appreciate it so much every day.”
It hasn’t been easy. Pence dived head-first into altering his swing so that he’s quick to get his bat in the strike zone but keeps in in the zone longer — short to and long through. It puts more demands on the back half of his body, so his off-season workouts were tailored to that.
He went to the Dominican Republic to test the swing out in winter ball. The swing was still a work-in-progress as he hit spring training on a minor-league deal. By the time Opening Day rolled around, though, he thought he had it down.
Pence said that he goes through a routine each day to maintain the swing. It might feel a little different from day to day, which tells him he still has things to learn about his reinvention, but he knows now that he had no choice put to change.
“Ultimately, the game has changed,” he said. “Pitchers have gotten better. New swing technology is out there with mechanics that have changed the game for a lot of players. If you’re not constantly looking to improve and looking at everything and be like, ‘Can this help?’ you’re going to fall behind. Once I realized this was a thing, I was like, ‘I want to go learn it.’”
Woodward said that he has been “blown away” by everything Pence does, including his work ethic, professionalism and the tenacity of each swing. Pence has even exceeded his reputation as one of the game’s top teammates.
He didn’t chirp when he wasn’t in the lineup, Woodward said, and stayed sharp for when he was called upon. He kept on producing and became too valuable to keep in a bench role.
“He kind of forced my hand,” Woodward said. “He earned it. He earned every at-bat he got.
“He never complained. He was ready to play every day. All the sudden, a guy gets hurt, he gets a little more playing time, and he’s ready.”
Pence, who turned 36 last month, looks to have more baseball in him beyond this season, and Woodward hopes that the younger players have been watching. No matter how long he plays with the Rangers, he is leaving an imprint that will serve current and future Rangers.
“As long as I’m here, I want him on the team,” Woodward said. “We’ve had so many conversations of what the vision is I’m trying to create to build a championship team, and in every way he represents that.”