Pence to honor coach who 'changed my life in major ways'

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Pence to honor coach who 'changed my life in major ways'

Programming note: The "Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards" -- featuring Bay Area stars Stephen Vogt, Stephen Curry, Hunter Pence, Derek Carr, Torrey Smith and Tara VanDerveer -- will air on Jan. 31 at 7:30pm on CSN Bay Area and at 11pm on CSN California.

SAN FRANCISCO — Hunter Pence walked into Cover All Bases more than a decade ago and asked the owner, Chris Gay, if it was true that players from the University of Texas at Arlington had access to the batting cage. Gay, an alum of UTA, had no idea what he was getting himself into when he said yes.

“I said you can come in anytime you want, not knowing he was going to be there almost every day and every night for eight months straight,” Gay said. “I started throwing him BP and started playing ping-pong with him, and it turned into my wife calling at 11 at night and saying, ‘Send Hunter home, it’s time for you to come home.’”

Gay would start throwing to Pence as his facility was closing down in the evening, and when Pence, who grew up near the Arlington, Texas facility, couldn’t possibly take any more swings, the action would shift to the ping-pong table. The rest of Pence’s development is a bit more well known. He turned into a second-round pick out of UTA, an All-Star with the Houston Astros, and a World Series champion with the Giants.

He has never forgotten those long sessions in the cage, though, and tonight Pence will honor Gay at the “Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards” ceremony, held in San Francisco. The event honors influential coaching figures in the lives of some of the Bay Area’s biggest stars.

Pence is honoring Gay for much more than the tens of thousands of baseballs the former minor league left-hander has thrown to him over the years. He said Gay stands out because of his integrity, his commitment to making the game fun, and the way he treats everyone he comes into contact with.

“I’ve never played on any of his teams but he changed my life in major ways just by being a role model,” Pence said. “Just by being good to people, not only to everyone that comes into his batting cage, but to the community. He lets all these high school kids and college kids come into (Cover All Bases). The way he impacts the community is always something I've admired."

Gay first impacted Pence’s career when he was a senior at Arlington High — but Gay didn’t know what he had done until six years later. Howard Pence, Hunter’s father, walked into Cover All Bases in search of a shortstop glove for Hunter, who had been an outfielder the previous three years. At a time when money was a little tight, Howard asked Gay if he could make a trade for the glove.

“I’ve always said to parents that a kid is not going to not play because they don’t have the money,” Gay recalled. “I’ll find a way to do something. His dad was a really nice guy … I reached down and grabbed a glove and flipped it to his dad.”

Years later, Hunter asked a surprising question during a dinner with Gay.

“He goes, ‘Do you remember some guy asking you for a glove? That was my dad,'” Gay said. “When I found out it was Hunter’s dad, I was kind of shocked.”

The two continued working together even after Pence became a professional. Gay spent three straight winters helping Pence prepare for spring training with the Astros, often simulating intense five-inning games in the cage. Gay recalls a young Pence resembling the "Full Throttle" outfielder Giants fans have fallen in love with over the past four seasons.

“He’s 100 percent all the time,” Gay said. “He’s 100 percent with baseball, it’s his passion. He’s one of those unique players who feels like he has to earn every cent they’re paying him.”

Gay was a left-handed pitcher in the White Sox system for two years — he happened to be in spring training at the same time as Michael Jordan — before starting Cover All Bases. The facility has been open for 19 years, and Gay also coaches three youth teams in addition to helping Pence with his own baseball camp every December in Houston. During Pence’s camp, he sees one of Major League Baseball’s best right fielders show the same kind of dedication that Gay did years ago when Pence came looking for a cage.

“He sits and hits with every single kid in the camp and stays there the entire day,” Gay said. “You won’t find that out of big league guys. He’s there from 8:30 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon.”

As Gay talks of Pence’s passion for teaching, an obvious question comes to mind: Hasn’t the longtime coach ever felt the urge to smooth out some of the wrinkles in Pence’s own swing, one you would never teach at a camp?

“Through all of Hunter’s violence in his swing, if you break it down from the swing point to the end point, it’s really pretty,” Gay said. “It’s just how he gets there. He stays so flat through the zone for a really long time, and he has unbelievable power. Why would you change that? When he hits the ball, it makes a different sound than a lot of people can make.”

For years, the two have talked of taking that sound to a home run derby, but Pence never came close to getting a shot last season. Injuries derailed his year from the start of spring training, but shortly after after the Giants were eliminated, an excited Pence and his then-girlfriend, Alexis Cozombolidis, reached out to Gay via FaceTime. (Gay thought the couple was calling to tell him they were engaged, but his prediction was off by a few weeks.)

“I need you to do me a favor,” Pence told Gay. “They’re doing this awards show in California and they asked me to nominate the person I think is the most influential coach in my life -- and it’s you.”

Pence considers Gay more than just a friend and mentor. As the two prepared to watch the Warriors host the Spurs on Monday night, Pence referred to the 46-year-old Gay as “my second dad.” That made for an easy decision when Pence was asked to give out the award.

“A lot of times those guys that work the hardest aren’t necessarily rewarded,” Pence said of Gay. “But they impact kids in so many ways beyond baseball.”

Giants Notes: Span feeling better, hopes to return to lineup Wednesday

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Giants Notes: Span feeling better, hopes to return to lineup Wednesday

CHICAGO -- Joe Panik's leadoff homer in the series opener was a jolt, but the Giants are a much more dangerous offense when Denard Span is clicking atop the lineup, a spot ahead of Panik, and they hope to have that duo going Wednesday. Span got treatment all day Tuesday and said he could return to the lineup against Kyle Hendricks. 

"The swelling has gone down," Span said of his sprained left thumb. "The thing to do is to come in tomorrow, test it out, and if it feels good, you strap it on."

Span said an X-ray came back clean, but he didn't grab a bat Tuesday to test the thumb, focusing instead on treatment. He is batting .326 in nine games since coming off the DL. His replacement in center this week, Gorkys Hernandez, was 0-for-3 against Jon Lester, lowering his average to .160. 

--- The main story from the second game of this series: Johnny Cueto is now dealing with a second blister, and you can see the lack of movement on his pitches. The Cubs took advantage. Lester didn't need much help while throwing a 99-pitch complete game in two hours and five minutes. 

"He threw a lot more changeups than we've seen in the past," Buster Posey said. "He's shown it in the past but tonight he had good command of it. It wasn't just a show-me pitch. He used it a lot and threw it to lefties as well.

Posey twice grounded short rollers in front of the plate.

--- Posey's throw to nab Javy Baez on Monday was one of the best of the year, and on Tuesday afternoon, Bruce Bochy said, "If he's given a chance, I don't think there's anyone better in the game." That might be true, but Willson Contreras is threatening to get into the conversation. He threw an 85 mph rocket to second in the fifth to nab Eduardo Nuñez. If you're wondering how Lester -- who flat-out has the yips about throwing to first base and doesn't do it -- has allowed just six stolen bases this season, look no further than his young catcher. Long-term, Contreras is the guy I would expect to compete with Posey for Gold Gloves. 

"Nuney, with his speed, can go," Bochy said. "Their catcher made a great throw. Put it right on the money."

--- From before Tuesday's game, what do the relievers think of the new hidden bullpen at Wrigley? And if you missed the Power Rankings the other day, the records are outdated, but there are updates in here on old friends Matt Duffy, Chris Heston, Tommy Joseph, Adalberto Mejia, Yusmeiro Petit and others. Petit in particular is incredible ... just keeps doing his thing. 

--- This play was made by the shortstop. That's good for the old UZR.

Now dealing with a second blister, Cueto gives up three homers to Cubs

Now dealing with a second blister, Cueto gives up three homers to Cubs

CHICAGO — Even after losses, Johnny Cueto tends to find a way to flash a smile or two in post-game interviews. He is as competitive as it gets between the lines, but off the field he embraces a relaxed attitude. 

There was none of that Tuesday night at Wrigley. Cueto wore a dour look while describing a 4-1 loss to the Cubs, perhaps because he is a man searching for answers. Cueto was already pitching with a blister for the first time in his career. On Tuesday, he admitted he’s now trying to make the ball dance while dealing with a second blister. 

The first, on his middle finger, popped up at the end of the spring and has bothered Cueto off and on. The second, on his index finger, formed in St. Louis last week. 

“It’s not an excuse,” Cueto said several times. “I was getting hit.”

The Cubs crushed three homers, including a 470-foot bomb from Kyle Schwarber. All three pitches leaked right over the heart of the plate, and Cueto admitted that he can't get that final twist on the ball as he normally does. A tad of his movement is missing, and hitters are taking advantage. 

“It’s just those pitches I left hanging,” Cueto said through interpreter Erwin Higueros. “When you leave pitches hanging or put them right in the middle of the plate, you’re going to pay the price.”

The homers — by Schwarber, Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo — represented 60 percent of the hits Cueto gave up. He struck out eight in six innings.

“It’s a little unlike Johnny to make mistakes like that,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “You like to think you could make a mistake and get away with it, but he didn’t tonight. A couple of fastballs he pulled over the heart of the plate and then one cutter.”

Catcher Buster Posey said the Cubs were on Cueto’s heater, so the duo tried to adjust. You can’t pitch without your fastball, though, and Cueto’s isn’t quite as explosive as it was in his first year with the Giants. The velocity is down a couple of ticks, but it’s unclear if that too is related to the blisters. 

What is clear is that Cueto is a different pitcher in his second season in San Francisco. He has a 4.64 ERA and opposing hitters are batting .253 with 11 homers. Through 10 starts last year, Cueto had a 2.83 ERA and was holding hitters to a .229 average. He had allowed just two homers. 

“Gosh, it’s just probably a few more mistakes than he made last year,” Bochy said. “He’s still competing so well and he gives you a chance to win every game.”

Cueto made it through six despite the long-ball issues, but that wasn’t enough against Jon Lester, who would have faced Cueto in Game 5 last October. Lester needed just 99 pitches to carve up the Giants for a complete game. He threw 70 strikes. 

That’s the type of efficient performance the Giants came to expect from Cueto last year. Cueto still expects it from himself, but his fingers aren’t cooperating. Asked if he would take a short stint on the DL to get right, Cueto said he can’t. He needs to keep pitching and have callouses form. Plus, any break without throwing would be a significant blow to a team trying desperately to stay within shouting distance of a playoff spot. 

“Basically, it makes no sense whatsoever,” to take a break, Cueto said.