SAN FRANCISCO - Tim Flannery is as positive an influence as you could ever find on a big league staff, but early on in his Giants tenure as Hunter Pence's third base coach, he learned that there's another level to be reached.
Pence was on third base one night and the opposing team pulled the corner infielders in but kept the middle infielders back. Flannery remembers telling Pence that he would not be breaking for home on a ball hit to first or third, but that he would on anything hit up the middle. Pence looked up at Flannery.
"He said, ‘Why don't you quit putting negativity into the universe,'" Flannery recalled recently, laughing. "I said ‘you got it!' and backed away."
Flannery remembers that moment working out well for the Giants. It also serves as the perfect example of how Pence has approached his life on the bases in 768 games in orange and black. If he has ever hit a grounder that he believed was destined to be an out, he hasn't shown it. The effort, from his first game in 2012 through this final week of a five-year contract, has remained the same, and the men who spend so many hours poring over the details of baserunning appreciate it.
"He runs the bases like he does everything else: full tilt," current third base coach Ron Wotus said. "That's a pleasure to have. When he's on second base and there's a base hit, I know that once he starts rolling, he's hard to stop. You expect to score him. Really that's one of his best assets is how hard he runs. He's all-out all the time."
Manager Bruce Bochy refers to it as "full throttle," and Pence hit that gear twice Tuesday night. He was on first when Evan Longoria pulled a double down the line, scoring without a throw. In the seventh, Pence scored from first on Gregor Blanco's double. Even at the age of 35, Pence can still motor. His average sprint speed of 28.2 feet-per-second is fifth on the team, a hair behind speedster Alen Hanson (28.4), and still well above average. Pence maxed out at 30.0 feet-per-second this season. Appropriately, he hit that mark on a grounder to second July 3 that he turned into a bang-bang play by busting it down the line.
Flannery was a Pence fan long before a blockbuster deal at the 2012 trade deadline. He has family in Houston and they fell in love with Pence when he was a young star with the Astros. When Pence showed up in San Francisco, he arrived with instructions.
"I started calling him Freight Train because he was coming so hard. He said, ‘If you don't mind, if you're going to stop me at third, stop me sooner than later,'" Flannery said. "I had to make a decision a little bit quicker but you always knew you were going to get this full effort. You knew all the time what you were getting from him, even if he was sore or hurt.
"As a third base coach, you coach tendencies. I didn't know him. I hadn't coached him before, so he actually sped up my learning curve by letting me know he's running full bore all the time."
It didn't take long for the Giants to figure out that Pence has only one speed. He played 162 games in his first full season with the Giants and did so again the next year. Bochy had an All-Star talent who wanted to be on the field every day and gave every ounce he had at all times. He took full advantage.
The situation changed over time, of course. Injuries slowed Pence in his next three seasons with the Giants. This year, troubles at the plate have been impossible to ignore. Pence has just 219 at-bats and has been a backup since returning from a rehab assignment, but in a new role, he has shown the staff a familiar trait. He hits far more grounders that he would like these days, but he is still Full Throttle. With 12 infield singles, Pence ranks second on the team to Andrew McCutchen.
"When you first are not playing every day and have to adapt to a new role, you find a lot out about people," Wotus said. "Is he going to play the game different? Is he going to approach it different? We've seen for the last three months, as he hasn't been playing as much, that he has not changed. He loves to play this game and he loves to compete.
"There are two types of people: The people that ease into the end and the people that go hard because they know they're not going to be doing what they love a week from now. That's who he is, and it hasn't surprised me. He hasn't changed."