Officially, the San Francisco Giants’ mascot is Lou Seal—a beer-bellied, semi-aquatic marine mammal in an oversized T-shirt.
In reality, the team’s mascot, spark plug and beating heart is Hunter Andrew Pence.
In Sunday’s 5-3, sweep-sealing win over the Arizona Diamondbacks, Pence went 1-for-3 with a walk, a run scored and a two-RBI double that proved to be the difference.
Scaling back a tad further, Pence is 12 for his last 20 with a home run, four doubles, four RBI and eight runs scored.
Not coincidentally, San Francisco has gone 4-1 over that stretch, righting a ship that was sinking faster than a greased boulder in quicksand.
After finishing an MLB-best 57-33 at the All-Star break, the Giants have gone a dismal 20-32 since. Their recent sweep of the D-Backs—owners of the NL’s second-worst record—doesn’t wipe the malaise board clean.
It’s something, however, and they’ll take it.
Sunday’s win, coupled with the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 3-0 loss to the Miami Marlins, moved the Giants (77-65) to within three games of the NL West lead.
They also maintained a 1.5-game cushion for the Senior Circuit’s top wild-card spot, ahead of the New York Mets (76-67) and St. Louis Cardinals (75-67).
Everything is up in the air with 20 games left, including six between the Giants and Dodgers. But if you’re a San Francisco fan casting about for optimism, fix your gaze squarely on Pence.
Yes, that can be frightening. Pence is an unconventional dude. There’s the springy hair. The wild eyes. The kale munching and the herky-jerk mechanics that seem to defy both the rules of baseball fundamentals and, at times, the laws of physics.
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Pence’s recent hot streak has put the Giants in the midst of the NL West and NL Wild Card races.
Ultimately, though, Pence is a three-time All-Star with the Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies and, finally, the Giants, and a linchpin in San Francisco’s 2012 and 2014 championship runs.
Recall the inspirational postseason sermon he delivered in 2012, which led then-third-base coach Tim Flannery to dub him “the Reverend Hunter Pence,” per USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale.
He pulled a similar gambit in 2014, and fans and his teammates bought into it.
Anyone can shout. It takes finesse to get people to listen.
Of course, what Pence does between the lines is more important than anything he says in the locker room or into a microphone. Right now, he’s showing signs of going on a tear.
Will Pence guide the Giants to another even-year title in 2016?
Granted, much of his recent flurry came against a lousy Arizona team at hitter-friendly Chase Field. But he looked like the Pence who has reeled off hot streaks in the past—working counts, punishing mistakes and slashing the ball to all fields.
Forget the June hamstring surgery that cost the 33-year-old seven weeks. Forget the foul ball off the face that left him with a nasty shiner. This is vintage Pence.
Apparently, it’s contagious. The Giants plated 23 runs in three games in the desert. They received contributions from up and down the lineup, with catcher Buster Posey, first baseman Brandon Belt and second baseman Joe Panik, among others, finding their strokes.
This Giants offense ranks sixth in the NL in runs scored and ninth in OPS. Still, they have capable hitters up and down the lineup. Seven of their position-player regulars have double-digit home runs.
There’s no single stat-stuffing superstar, but there are a lot of guys who can hurt you.
The starting rotation is anchored by October demigod Madison Bumgarner and co-ace Johnny Cueto, with Jeff Samardzija and trade-deadline addition Matt Moore rounding out a solid top four. The bullpen, despite closer Santiago Casilla’s struggles, has valuable pieces such as veterans Sergio Romo and Javier Lopez and hard-throwing Hunter Strickland.
If the Giants can score, in other words, they’re a threat. The prospect of Pence strapping them to his back for the next few weeks in this—wait for it—even year should leave possible playoff opponents fretting.
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Pence was a key piece of San Francisco’s 2012 and 2014 title runs.
“You start with the talent and the way he’s swinging the bat,” manager Bruce Bochy said of Pence, per Alex Pavlovic of CSN Bay Area. “But just the energy he brings [is big]. I talk about it so many times, but he brings it every day.”
Pence can’t constantly beat the fire and brimstone drum. But he can light subtle sparks, as Andrew Baggarly of the San Jose Mercury News outlined:
Pence knows he cannot go Pentecostal every night. But even amid two of the worst months of baseball in Giants history, his optimism has been impossible to slay. He has done most of his motivational work on a quieter and more individual basis in recent weeks, taking Matt Moore aside in the kitchen or speaking to Eduardo Nunez in the trainer’s room or enthusiastically offering free samples of his latest cold brewed coffee concoction from his enormous thermal mug.
That’s typically idiosyncratic and typically Pence. The question now is can he be a mascot, a spark plug and, more to the point, a three-time champion?
All statistics current as of Sunday and courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.