PHILADELPHIA — Even after 20 years as a manager in professional baseball, Charlie Manuel faces challenges beyond the Xs and Os.
The handling of Hunter Pence is his latest.
"He's different from any hitter I've ever had," the Phillies manager said.
Since Pence was traded to Philadelphia last July, Manuel has learned the best way to approach Pence is to be as positive as possible and let him work out of ruts on his own.
"We don't want to get him out of sync with his thinking," Manuel said. "I said one thing about him and it kind of like messed him up."
Too much thinking often leads to too much pressing, something Manuel has seen recently from Pence.
It's led to a homestand during which Pence is hitting .105 (2-for-19) on the homestand in six games.
Pence, too, has noticed he's trying too hard, and he doesn't want the mental part of the game to interfere with his swing and approach once he steps in the box.
He's an aggressive hitter. He always has been. He doesn't envision changing his approach. But he has to make sure he's going about things the right way.
"If I go up there and say, 'OK, don't swing at a bad pitch,' well I'm not going to be ready to hit when I get a good pitch," he said. "Different pitchers have different deceptions. It looks like a strike and it jumps. What you see on TV is not what we're facing in the batter's box."
Pence said he's been taking way too many swings in the cage lately, especially before Friday's game when he spent hours there and then was 0-for-3 and left four runners on base.
When he got home after the Phillies' 7-3 win over the Padres, he did some thinking. He remembered the time when he was with the Houston Astros and Jeff Bagwell literally dragged him out of the cage. So he figured he'd give that theory a try and told himself that when he got to the park Saturday, he would limit the number of swings he would take in the cage before or after batting practice.
In an effort to explain how overdoing it can affect your success on the field, Pence compared it to dating.
"If you have a girl that you really like and you just want to do everything you can for her, you smother them," he said. "That ends up repelling them. It's like I'm smothering hitting right now. Sometimes you've got to let that girl go, relax.
"Coming in [Saturday], I want to be relaxed, a little more loose, let my body have more energy, to have my fresh energy for the game. My idea is to start hitting the ball as hard as I can to right field all of BP. I have a game plan."
The right-handed Pence has had issues with left-handed pitchers this season. He is hitting .179 (5-for-28) against them.
Also, his on-base percentage is just .297, which is well below his career on-base percentage of .341, and lower than teammates Laynce Nix (.392), Pete Orr (.314), Juan Pierre (.392), Placido Polanco (.314), Carlos Ruiz (.381) and Ty Wigginton (.358).
Pence leads the team in strikeouts (27)and is hitting only. 256 this season. For his career, he's a .291 hitter.
Some of his issues are a by-product of his free-swinging approach; some can be explained away by putting pressure on himself as the team's four-hole hitter in the absence of Ryan Howard; and the rest of it can be blamed on the way he's seeing the ball right now.
"The way he approaches hitting and stuff, he will always swing at balls out of the strike zone," Manuel said. "What we do about it, I don't know. You wouldn't call him a disciplined hitter. You would call him an unorthodox hitter. He's a guy who sees it, and if he thinks he can hit it, he swings at it. To me, right now, I think you have to kind of accept that and hope he gets good balls to hit.
"My job is to get the most out of him. I never had a hitter like him. … I don't want to send him a [wrong] message because he's different than anybody I ever met or talked to."
Pence's swing isn't one you'd teach to Little Leaguers. It's flat-out awkward.
Sometimes he swings far too hard and far too often.
Sometimes he's hit balls for singles or even out of the ball park that he had no business getting too.
And although his batting average this season isn't where he'd like it to be, he is hitting .316 with RISP this year, and that's one of the reasons Manuel isn't in a hurry to start tinkering with his stance, his grip, his approach or his way of thinking.
"I've seen him hit balls that have beat him, and I've seen him fist them and muscle them over the infield for hits and things like that," Manuel said. "As long as he hits home runs and as long as he's successful."
There's not a doubt in Pence's mind that that will be the case again soon.
"It's a long haul and staying persistent with looking at these at-bats and trying to make an adjustment [is important]," Pence said. "Sometimes it happens fast, sometimes slow. I'm going to be doing everything I can to hit as good as I can.
"I know I can hit better."
Did you know?
Jimmy Rollins has played 1,650 games at shortshop for the Phillies and needs to play just 80 more there to pass Larry Bowa for most games at shortstop by a Phillie. … Placido Polanco has the best fielding percentage in club history at second base (.995 in 2004) and at third base (.986 in 2010). … As current reliever Jose Contreras and former reliever Danys Baez did, Raul Valdes defected from Cuba. … One of Laynce Nix's pinch-hit home run was also a walk off home run (May 3, 2010 against the Mets). … Hector Luna got eight at-bats combined in the 2004 and 2005 NLCS while he was with St. Louis. … Cliff Lee has more postseason strikeouts (89) from 2006-11 than any pitcher in baseball. Cole Hamels is second with 77.
Mark Buehrle (Miami Marlins) … The 33-year-old left-hander has given the Marlins everything they could have hoped for. Although his record, at 2-4 this season, doesn't show it, Buehrle is putting up great numbers, especially in his last two starts, a stretch during which he posted a 1.72 ERA (3 ER, 15 2/3 IP). For the season, Buehrle, a 38th round pick in the 1998 draft, has a 2.81 ERA. In 48.0 IP, he allowed just eight walks. Six of his seven starts have been quality starts.
Bryce Harper (Washington Nationals) … With all the buzz and hype surrounding this kid, it's hard to believe things won't get better. For so far, the 19-year-old rookie has had a rough go of it, particularly in the last week. In his last seven games, the first-round pick from the 2010 draft, was 4-for-27 (.148) with six strikeouts and no RBIs.
Catching up with former Phillie …. Gavin Floyd
The 6-foot-6 right-handed pitcher is off to a great start with the White Sox. So far this season, he's 3-3 with a 2.53 ERA. In 46 1/3 innings pitched, he has a WHIP of 0.950 and he has 42 strikeouts. While with the Phillies, who drafted him with their first pick (fourth overall) of the 2001 draft, Floyd, was 7-5 in 24 games, 19 of which were starts. He had a 6.96 ERA in 108 2/3 innings pitched from 2004-06.