CLEARWATER, Fla. — Hunter Pence's piercing blue eyes grow even wider when he hears the word playoffs.
Reaching the postseason is no longer a dream for Pence. It's an expectation.
When the Philadelphia Phillies acquired the two-time All-Star right fielder from Houston last July, Pence jumped from one of the worst teams in the majors to one of the best. He got his first taste of pennant fever, and wants more.
"Words can't describe how amazing it was," Pence said. "Losing in the first round was pretty painful, but it was one of the greatest experiences of my life."
Despite a franchise-record and major league-leading 102 wins, the Phillies lost in five games to eventual World Series champion St. Louis in the NL division series. It was a bitter disappointment for fans and everyone in the organization.
Winning five straight division titles and the 2008 World Series raised expectations to enormous levels in Philadelphia. Now, anything less than another championship isn't considered a success.
For some, that's pressure. For Pence, it's an adrenaline rush.
"It's very exciting," he said. "It's a great time to be a part of this organization. It's great from the top down. The fans are incredible and in this clubhouse, the expectations are to win a World Series. You couldn't ask for more."
Pence was considered the missing piece the Phillies needed on offense last year. The team couldn't find a viable replacement for Jayson Werth, so general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. made another major trade with the Astros to get Pence.
Pence hit .324 with 11 homers and 35 RBIs in 54 games for Philadelphia. He finished the season at .314 with 22 homers and a career-best 97 RBIs. Late in the season, Pence replaced Chase Utley as the No. 3 batter, a spot usually reserved for the best all-around hitter in the lineup. With slugger Ryan Howard out indefinitely, Pence may have to bat cleanup to start the season.
"I'm pretty comfortable anywhere," he said. "They ask me what the difference is and I can't explain a difference. When you get up to bat, you look at the situation. The difference is what the pitcher is throwing and who's on base. They have to throw the ball over the plate and you have to hit and find a way to get the job done and help your team win.
"Ultimately, when you take the field, no matter where you are hitting, you have to go up there, have a professional at-bat and try to help your team win."
Pence has never hit more than 25 homers in a season, a feat he accomplished three straight years for Houston. He won't change his approach to try to fill Howard's big shoes.
"That's incredibly difficult," Pence said. "He's definitely a game-changer and you want to have him back as soon as possible. But until that happens, we just have to go out there with what we have and play to win. But it will be a big lift when we do get him back."
Pence epitomizes the baseball term: gamer. He's hard-nosed, goes all-out and genuinely has fun on the field. Even in spring training, he wants to play. While other veterans prefer to sit out long bus rides to play meaningless games, Pence goes everywhere. He leads the team in at-bats this spring with 57.
"It's a tremendous joy to play every day," he said. "I love the game of baseball. I truly enjoy the competition, the obstacles. I love to hit. I want to go out there and hit all day. I want to win. That's the Phillies' mentality."
Pence has a unique way of doing things, and he looks awkward because he has a gangly frame. He has long arms, long legs and looks odd running. He wears a batting glove only on his left hand, a sleeve on his left elbow, blister protector on his left hand and pulls his socks high. His swing is more of a hack than a smooth, fluid stroke. And, he takes mighty cuts even in batting practice.
Naturally, scouts doubted him.
"They would look at me and say, 'How do you evaluate this?'" Pence joked. "It worked good for me because they didn't think I would hit at the next level. My personality, it fuels me. If you tell me I can't do something, I want to prove you wrong."Comment on this story
Pence has made skeptics believe in him since his rookie season with the Astros in 2007 when he hit .322 with 17 homers and 69 RBIs in 108 games. Pence has a .292 career average with 114 homers and 412 RBIs in five seasons.
Upon arriving in baseball-crazed Philadelphia, Pence became an instant fan favorite. Fans gave him a standing ovation the first time he jogged out to right field, and he often acknowledges them with a wave.
"I appreciate it," he said. "They really made it easy on me, made it a lot of fun. I just want to go out there every day and earn everything. I play the game to win today and give it everything I got."