Phils hope Pence perks up, and they follow
Outfielder's key play helps keep Nationals at bay in victory
PHILADELPHIA -- Hunter Pence didn't expect to find reporters at his locker Wednesday night. Sure, he knew he'd made a nice throw to gun down Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa at the plate in the sixth inning. He understood that it was a pretty big play in the Phillies' 4-1 win at Citizens Bank Park.
"When you're doing things right, you shouldn't have to talk about it," the Phillies right fielder explained.
This was a little different, though. Pence had been dealing with unexpected defensive problems in the early going. More than once, he stood up after a game and took responsibility for not making a play in the field.
And if baseball lore has it that a slumping hitter can break out of his doldrums with one hit, doesn't it stand to reason that the same holds true for a fielder?
"Without a doubt," said manager Charlie Manuel. "When you have a [defensive] game like we had tonight, that can definitely help. That lifts you up. That's good."
Shortstop Freddy Galvis made a spectacular back-to-the plate catch of pinch-hitter Steve Lombardozzi's popup in shallow left field in the top of the eighth to save a run. Shane Victorino showed his range to make a couple catches in center. But Pence's throw and the tag by catcher Carlos Ruiz may have been the most pivotal of all.
The Phillies were clinging to a 2-0 lead. Starter Cole Hamels hadn't allowed a hit until Espinosa doubled to left with one out. Bryce Harper followed with a single to right and the Nationals, who had beaten the Phillies in nine of 10 previous meetings, seemed to be in business. At least until Espinosa was out at the plate, keeping Washington off the board even though Ryan Zimmerman followed with the third consecutive hit of the inning.
"It's huge. That really saved us," Hamels said. "It was later in the game and you don't want the opposing team to get momentum, to get that sort of kick where they think they can take the game back. That big play, Hunter throwing it in and Chooch making the great tag, that's a really good play to keep us in the ballgame. It just kept the momentum in our favor. It didn't allow them to have that big opportunity."
Pence became a fan favorite he was acquired from the Astros at the Trade Deadline last season. He was the big right-handed bat that a heavily left-handed lineup needed and led the team down the stretch in batting average (.324), on-base percentage (.394), slugging percentage (.560), extra-base hits (25) and walks (26) after his arrival. He was also second in home runs and RBIs.
Even though he leads the team this season with 10 homers and is second with 28 RBIs, he struggled at times. He's batting .228 with runners in scoring position. And there have been several misadventures in the field.
Twice, he made ill-advised attempts to make diving catches that turned into triples. He dropped a routine fly ball against the Mets on May 9 that helped turn a close game into a lopsided loss, and he was booed by the home crowd.
"I'd boo myself, too," he said after the game. "I'm probably madder than they are that I dropped the ball. It's awful."
A week later against the Astros, he literally kicked a ball in the ninth that allowed Houston to tie the score. He atoned with a walk-off homer in the 10th, but it didn't alleviate the concerns about his defense.
"I really can't explain it. It's just been bad. It's been a debacle. I'm sorry about that, Philly," he said on a local radio show.
Through it all, he's try not to get too high or too low.
"In Philly, the meter is like, 'Panic! Happy! Panic! Happy!' So we need to stay right here and keep going. There are going to be hot times and there are going to be cold times. Just take it each day and play hard," he said.
"My meter? Rollercoaster. I'm trying to stay even keel and every day, I want to give it everything I have and try to get better. Obviously, it can get a lot better than I'm playing right now. But it turns around. That was an unbelievable catch by Ruiz. I kind of gave him a short hop. Let it fly and it came out a little too high. You want to give him a longer hop. But he made a heck of a play."
Manuel has suggested that, with Ryan Howard and Chase Utley on the disabled list, Pence might be trying too hard to compensate. Last night, Manuel took Pence out of the cleanup spot and batted him third for just the third time this season. Pence walked twice and scored a run.
Pence didn't discount the theory, but he added: "Pressure in Major League Baseball is there always. If you're hitting in the eight hole, nine hole there are pressure moments all the time. And you learn to just play the game. I'm just going to try to give it everything I've got every day. After I've played the game hard, I'll try to come back and play better."
Pence played better Wednesday night. The Phillies are hoping it's the beginning of a trend.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.