As fall approaches and engulfs the end of the Major League Baseball season, fans are annually reminded that all bets are off when trying to begin writing the script for its finish. And though few things can truly be counted on for consistency this time of year, recent history in Philadelphia would indicate that we are once again seeing a second-half surge that carries the Phillies into the postseason.
Success during the stretch run is as sure as the seasonal change in the city these days, but the way in which the team is racking up the wins is a departure from the normal late-summer charge. Leading this year’s perennial rush toward October is the man in the clubhouse who, like their lineup nowadays, is furthest from the usual.
Hunter Pence is known for his quirky personality and committed approach, and the 28 year-old right fielder is making the most of his opportunity to play for a championship-caliber team in a large market. Accepted by the city with open arms, Pence is already a fan favorite for his hustle, love of the game and interaction with fans through social media.
However, a display of heart and effort on the field that wins over a tough Philadelphia crowd will never guarantee a parade through the streets in late October. The championship that everyone is chasing is won by what happens between the first pitch and the final out, an area that Pence has covered as well as anything.
Without Pence, the Phillies have traditionally relied on the white-hot bat of Ryan Howard to carry the offense when the leaves begin to turn. And while Howard is enjoying a productive statistical year, the Philly faithful are still waiting for "The Big Piece" to provide the big punch that they are accustomed to seeing.
With recent injuries to Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, along with Placido Polanco playing through pain as we hit the final 25 games of the 2011 campaign, the Phillies have gotten a much-needed boost from their energetic outfield acquisition.
The impact Pence has on the team goes far beyond his statistical value to the team. The .311 batting average, seven home runs and 23 RBI do give the Phillies a legitimate replacement for Jayson Werth’s impact and have helped get the offense through injuries and slumps.
The most important contribution that Pence has made may lie in something that he has not done: strike out. Batting behind Howard, who has hit 196 punch-outs twice in his career, contact is key to driving in runs, whether it is a sacrifice or a base hit. Pence is averaging well under one strikeout a game at 0.71 per contest, and has corrected a fundamental weakness that has plagued the Phillies when the calendar flips to October.
What Pence has shown over the course of his tenure in red pinstripes is that he can spark an offense in need, much like his game-changing triple Friday against a playoff team in Milwaukee. With a makeshift lineup featuring Michael Martinez, Wilson Valdez and Ben Francisco, Pence moved into the clean-up spot and pushed the Phillies to victory in the very same way that fans are used to seeing Howard operate in September.
Pairing two streaking stars in the order as the team makes the final push could be all the Phillies needs to erase memories of their "Giant" failure in 2010. With the way the rotation can pitch, a little offensive consistency will be all they need to ride down Broad Street once again.