Belt expected pitchers duel, drove in six runs instead
In 14 games in September, Hunter Pence is hitting .407 (22-for-54) with seven home runs and 22 RBI. (USA TODAY IMAGES)
LOS ANGELES – The question isn’t whether the Giants will sign Hunter Pence.
It’s how much, and for how long.
Forget “one more day.” How about five more years? Or six? No matter the cost, how could the Giants possibly afford to let their earnest right fielder with the scoopy on-deck swing and the bird legs and the frenetic energy and an RBI total that beeps when it backs up, slip away as a free agent?
[RELATED: Giants reportedly open talks with Pence]
Driving in 16 runs in five games tends to drive up the price. That’s where Pence stands after hitting a grand slam and knocking in a career-high seven runs in a historic, hysteric 19-3 victory at Dodger Stadium Saturday night.
Go ahead and ask Pence if he truly didn’t think about the money he made himself this past week. He’ll answer with a non-sequitur: “This was one game. We’ve got to keep pushing tomorrow and ultimately the goal is to play as great as we can to end the season. Get that winning attitude, play that hard-nosed baseball.”
It’s what he’s supposed to say. In his case, you can believe it. Every word.
“Really, you can,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “I’ve said so many good adjectives about him. He’s out there every day, and the way he plays, you appreciate his intensity on every pitch.
“He can hit, he can steal a base, he’s a good right fielder. He’s a guy we think a lot of and that will be addressed soon.”
Pence is having the best contract drive since Randy Winn exploded for 51 hits in September, 2005. The difference is that Winn had another year of arbitration when the Giants locked him up. Pence is hitting the open market.
So ... how much, and for how long? Well, at one point you could set the negotiating floor at four years, which is what Angel Pagan got, and $15 million per season, which is a little more than what Pence is making now.
Four and $60 million is looking more like the wine cellar now – especially since losing him would leave the Giants in need of two everyday corner outfielders, with Angel Pagan, the only holdover, coming off major hamstring surgery.
Leave the number wrangling to Giants vice president Bobby Evans and the fine folks at the Beverly Hills Sports Council, with an occasional check-in to CEO Larry Baer. Conversations have begun, they will continue, and given the willingness of all parties, don’t be surprised if Pence signs before he can become a free agent five days after the World Series.
“I love it here,” Pence said. “I love playing for Bochy. I love playing for this city. It’s a wonderful place to play. For them to want me means a lot.”
Again, those are the words he’s supposed to say. They are the same words that so many stars, on the cusp of free agency, spouted to the fans and the beat writers only to chase the top dollar.
But Pence says other things, and mostly, he sounds like a high school football coach raving about his underclassmen. He talks like someone who expects to be here, to be a part of Giants baseball going forward. To have one more day, and then some.
“We’ve got to remember it’s just one game, but to have a lot of good at-bats, a lot of good swings, it gets you going in the right direction,” said Pence, after the Giants scored the most runs by a team in Dodger Stadium’s 51-year history. “We played well in all aspects. We swung it well and we ran the bases well. These are things we’ll keep pushing on.”
And what about having that kind of historic night here in Los Angeles, against a team that is going to take their playoff seat as NL West champions?
“I don’t like to use the word pride,” Pence said. “I think any time something significant like this happens, it’s something to be grateful for and be humbled by. It was a special night. … And I’d like to add the reason I was even able to have that success was because there were runners on. When a game like this happens, it’s a product of everybody doing well.”
Pence hit an RBI single in the first inning. He hit a two-run single in the second inning as the Giants chased longtime foil Ricky Nolasco after taking a 7-1 lead against him. Then Pence sat on a 2-0 fastball from Stephen Fife and hit the Giants’ first grand slam of the season. It was his third consecutive night with a home run here.
Just four days after he matched a career high with six RBIs, he set a new one with seven.
And Brandon Belt wanted to credit Pence with a little more.
Belt played a second fiddle the size of a cello. He went antiquing in garbage time for a two-run home run and a two-run double, setting career bests with five hits and six RBIs.
“I’m a little embarrassed I couldn’t be the top RBI guy tonight,” Belt joked.
He credited some of his success to Pence, who has been challenging him in recent days. Before batting practice Friday, the two had a conversation that could be fairly distilled this way:
Pence: “You know, you could hit 20 home runs.”
Belt: “You know, you could hit 30.”
Pence: “Well, OK.”
Pence hit his 22nd that night, and followed up on his challenge. He asked Belt to order up video on every home run he’d ever hit, and watch it.
“I told him to have a `dig me’ session,” Pence said. “Sometimes it makes you feel good to see what you’ve done and what you’re capable of. I know a lot of good hitters who’ve done it.”
Pence did it a few weeks ago and broke a long homer drought shortly thereafter. Brandon Crawford did the same thing earlier in the season -- and he cued up some of Barry Bonds’ home runs too, because heck, why not?
“Today was the first time I’ve done that ever, and I hit a home run,” Belt said. “ So I think I’ll keep doing that.”
Pence is the first Giant since Barry Bonds in 1998 to hit 20 homers and steal 20 bases. He’s two weeks away from becoming their first Giants position player to start every regular-season game since Alvin Dark in 1954. He’s played 98.8 percent of the innings in right field, and that’s after that number took a hit when he rested the final three Saturday night. (He’s sat for just 16 innings all year.) There’s no more amphetamines or ephedrine or red juice to get players wired up. Pence’s everyday energy is one of the rarest commodities in the game, and he’s got speed and power, too.
On top of that, there’s the value he brings to the clubhouse. There’s his relentlessly optimistic mindset that will be more important than ever for the Giants to reestablish after this erratic and disappointing season.
How could the Giants have a dig-me session without Pence? How could they let him get away?
He is indefatigable. He is indispensable.
“Hunter always likes to challenge people and make sure they keep a positive mindset,” Belt said. “We’ve got games to play. We’ve got something to play for. He doesn’t let you forget that.”