Hunter Pence says goodbye to Giants, but he's not retiring yet

Hunter Pence says goodbye to Giants, but he's not retiring yet

SAN FRANCISCO -- Hunter Pence did not view Sunday’s game as his chance to walk off into the sunset. The Giants didn’t, either. 

After Pence gave an emotional speech alongside the pitcher’s mound at AT&T Park, the team presented him with a custom scooter, all black with an orange “8” emblazoned on the back. There was only one problem. Pence got on, took off, and then took a disappointed look at the speedometer.

“It’s going to take an hour to get around this stadium at 1.5 mph,” he thought.

The man nicknamed Full Throttle then literally reached for the throttle, zooming along the warning track and saying goodbye to fans who showered him with love throughout his final game in San Francisco. 

This day did not go quite as Pence or the Giants hoped it would. They were blown out 15-0 by the Dodgers, finishing off a sweep that guaranteed their NL West rivals a 163rd game, with the division title on the line. Pence went 0-for-4, striking out three times. He received a standing ovation before his first at-bat and swung over the top of a Rich Hill pitch. In the ninth, he had a long at-bat against L.A. youngster Julio Urias but waved at a 3-2 changeup. 

None of that will be remembered. The Giants forever will honor Pence for his energy, his enthusiasm, and a positive outlook that was on display even after a two-touchdown loss. 

“The darkest hour of the night comes just before the dawn,” Pence told the fans who stayed after the game. “You guys showed unconditional love to us, and we appreciated that. The dawn is coming. Thank you so much.”

With that, Pence was done in orange and black. Nobody would say it, of course, but you don’t hold going away ceremonies on Sept. 30 when you plan to bring a player into camp the next February to compete for a job. Pence wouldn't fully close the door, but he, too, understands what’s next. And he’s ready to work for an opportunity elsewhere. 

Pence will head to Los Angeles on Tuesday for intense sessions with Doug Latta, a private instructor who helped make Justin Turner a star and revamped Mac Williamson’s swing last offseason. Pence flew down to work with Latta for four days earlier this season, in the midst of a rehab assignment, but the changes didn’t stick. When push came to shove, and Pence was given at-bats with the game on the line, he felt the right move was to revert to what he knew, not experiment with a runner sitting on third. Now, Pence has the freedom to, as he said, “reinvent myself.”

“I feel strong, I feel healthy, I feel fast. I’m going to work on flexibility and changing my swing completely,” he said. “I want to still play. It’s uncertain -- hopefully I can find an opportunity, and I’m going to look for it. I’m going to do everything I can to be the best I can because I want to come back and contribute to another playoff run.”

None of this will be easy. Pence is 35. He hit .226 this season with just four homers. But he feels like he has more to offer, and he wants to take one last shot at his passion in life. Pence plans to play winter ball in late November, and his representatives are hoping to line up a job in Mexico or the Dominican Republic. After that, perhaps a big league team will call and invite him to camp. 

Pence said there wasn’t a point where he thought this would be the end of the road, but there also was uncertainty during a difficult season. 

“I wasn’t really doing well, but I think … when I knew I was healthy and strong and fast, I was like, you know what, if I can master my swing (I) can come back and be productive,” he said. “It’s not good if you actually can’t perform, and I truly believe in my heart that I can. I can make this adjustment. I can reinvent myself, and I still love it and I’m still healthy. With all that, it was an easy decision.”

For the Giants, it should be, too. They need to get younger, particularly in the outfield, and it's time to turn the page. But not before one last party. Fans were given placards that said #GR8FUL on them, and Pence was showered with love throughout the day. He said much of it was a surprise. He had no idea what the Giants had in store for him, but when he was handed the microphone, Pence, as he always does, had the right words ready.

First, there was perspective.

“I’m not going to lie, it was tough. This season was tough,” he said. “I’m not going to lie. It was bad.”

Then, a little philosophy.

“When you have an orange and you squeeze it, what are you going to get out of an orange? You’re going to get orange juice,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good day or a bad day. What are you going to get? Orange juice. When you come to AT&T Park, you’re going to get love, you’re going to get passion. You’re going to get a full stadium. You guys showed that every single day.”

Finally, there was appreciation.

“I love you all,” Pence said. “Thank you so much.”

And then, because this is Hunter Pence, and because this isn’t the end of the road, there was more work to do. After he spoke with reporters, Pence ran off to the gym. Teammates were rushing to red-eye flights and packing up their gear, but Pence doesn’t believe he has a second to waste as he looks for another opportunity. He morphed back into Full Throttle.

“I have no off time,” Pence said as he walked away. “It’s time to get ready.”

Giants catchers have blast with familiar drill that includes new twist

Giants catchers have blast with familiar drill that includes new twist

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Giants have tried to make their workouts shorter and more efficient, allowing players a little extra time every day to hang out with their families or hit the golf course. But for one group, the day can still be a hell of a grind.

Nobody works harder in camp than the catchers, who report on Day 1 with pitchers and spend hours catching bullpens between their own drills. When they're done with all the heavy lifting, they get their turn to hit in the cage, using up whatever energy the early afternoon sun hasn't zapped away. 

But on Wednesday, the six catchers in Giants camp got a few minutes to laugh.

New bullpen coach Craig Albernaz led a drill that on the surface looked very familiar. Every spring, catchers work on tracking and gloving pop-ups shot into the bright sky by a pitching machine. But Albernaz mixed it up this time, putting the catchers into teams of two and making them share one glove as they chased pop-ups:

"Man, it was a blast," non-roster invitee Chad Tromp said.

Tromp, who came over from the Reds, said he had never done the drill that way before. Neither had Rob Brantly, a veteran who has been in the big leagues with three organizations since debuting in 2012. Brantly said it was a lot of fun, but pointed out that there was a method to the madness.

"It's just a fun drill that you do but you build a relationship with the other guy," he said. "You immediately start strategizing."

Brantly was paired with fellow non-roster invitee Tyler Heineman, with Tromp joining 20-year-old Ricardo Genoves and Buster Posey teaming up with Joey Bart. They had a very interested observer as the drill got more intense. Gabe Kapler walked over to watch and said he appreciated the drill because guys were competing and communicating. 

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Those are two themes of camp, and they were on full display as catchers threw a glove back and forth. Tromp and Genoves caught the most pop-ups and won the mini-competition, which was a welcomed break from monotony for the group and ramped up the intensity on a hot day in Scottsdale. 

"There's a lot of pressure," Tromp said, smiling. "You have a second guy and you have to tell them where to go and where to look. It's something we don't usually do and it puts you in a panicked situation pretty quickly." 

Heliot Ramos isn't in big league camp, but he still may get some time with Giants

Ali Thanawalla

Heliot Ramos isn't in big league camp, but he still may get some time with Giants

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When the Giants announced their first round of non-roster invitees last month, there weren't any hugely surprising names on the list. The biggest questions might have been about a couple of top prospects who would not be in camp.

Joey Bart and Sean Hjelle were among those invited, but the Giants did not include Heliot Ramos and Hunter Bishop, who generally get ranked with Bart and teenager Marco Luciano in the top four on prospect lists

Ramos (2017) and Bishop (2019) are former first-round draft picks, but president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said the organization doesn't have a blanket policy of inviting first-round picks to camp the next year. Instead, as the Giants put together a spring roster, they worried more about having coverage.

They have plenty of outfielders in camp fighting for spare at-bats and reps, but you always need six catchers early on and that can be hard to find. That's one reason Bart was in camp last year a few months after his own draft and Ricardo Genoves, a 20-year-old catcher who hasn't played above Low-A ball Augusta was added as a non-roster invitee this time when Aramis Garcia got hurt.

"It's different with catchers, fairly or not," Zaidi said. "You need six guys in camp and that creates the opportunity a little earlier. For Joey, it was also about giving him a camp with (Bruce Bochy) and with Boch's catching history. I think there are extenuating circumstances."

Ramos spent nearly all of 2019 with Bart. They started the year together in San Jose and got promoted to Double-A Richmond at the same time before playing together in the Arizona Fall League. While Ramos will be in minor league camp this spring, Zaidi said the Giants might try to bring him over for some Cactus League games, and he said the 20-year-old center fielder "absolutely" will have an opportunity to reach the big leagues this year. 

"We had guys last year work their way through two or three levels of the minors leagues so it's certainly something that he could do," Zaidi said. "I think both with him and Joey, just the injuries kind of slowed them down a little bit and maybe backed up their timetable for when they could potentially get to the big leagues this year, but we've talked about promoting guys aggressively when they kind of perform up to levels that warrant a promotion, and that'll be the case for both those guys."

Ramos dealt with a knee injury early last year but still put up a .306/.385/.500 slash line in San Jose. He had a .242/.321/.421 line in the much tougher Eastern League. Overall, Ramos hit 16 homers in his second full professional season and showed the kind of improved plate discipline the new regime has demanded of all prospects. 

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The Giants should have plenty of opportunities later in March to bring Ramos over as a bench option in Cactus League games, and there's one player in particular who will be fired up to see him. Bart said he has formed a special bond with Ramos.

"He's really good, really good. I wish he was here but I know he'll be around," Bart said. "That kid is very special. I wouldn't say that about a lot of guys. If I see a guy that's really good it really opens my eyes. I don't say that about a lot of guys. He's strong, he hits the ball so far and so hard and he really doesn't even know what he's doing.

"The kid is just so strong and he's getting to be a lot smarter of a player. He's got great instincts, and that's something you can't teach."