AS BOTH feet landed on the plate, his face contorted under the conflict of disparate emotions, like a man who found $100 on the street after hitting a dog with his car. Hunter Pence looked apologetic and happy all at once, held his arms out as he touched home Tuesday as if simultaneously pleading for forgiveness and accepting it.
"I think," he said after his 10th-inning home run won a game that his ninth-inning error endangered, "it was just relief."
Hunter Pence has become the Ilya Bryzgalov of the Phillies, a player capable of amazing you one second and angering you another. An error in the ninth inning, on a simple exchange of the ball from his glove to his hand, allowed Houston to tie the game. His 10th-inning home run, off former Phillie Brett Myers, provided the 4-3 victory.
Unlike Bryzgalov, though, he is in a role that he never asked to be in and didn't expect to be in, batting cleanup for a team that habitually fails to score runners from second or third, even when there are no outs.
The Phillies' de facto cleanup hitter, he entered the matinee against his old club, the Astros, owning a .243 average, the lowest at this juncture of the season in his career. He was 3-for-27 in the seven previous games of the homestand, including a woeful three games against the Mets.
Immensely popular when he first arrived here last summer via trade, Pence has been repeatedly booed as he has failed to drive in runs, run himself into outs or flubbed routine plays in the outfield. Clearly, it is the first prolonged booing he has undergone in his life, and clearly, it has affected him. Without much prodding Tuesday, Pence repeatedly mentioned the locals' treatment of him, not with bitterness but rather a schoolboy's vow to do better.
"I've kind of had a different mentality the last 2 or 3 days," he said. "I love to play the game and I'm going to come out and give it my all. And that's the thing: I'm enjoying the at-bats. Even when I don't get the job done and I'm getting booed, I know that I was ready."
Later he said, "Honestly, I'm just trying to go out and play. I'm letting all the rest go . . . I'm going to go out there and give it everything. I think that's the main thing. Getting out of the way of myself. And once I did that . . . Who knows what's going to happen, but the results are starting to happen."
He was 3-for-5 on Tuesday, including two home runs. He is on a pace to hit more of those than he ever has, a byproduct of his position in the lineup, if not an embracement of it.
It's a tricky thing, being "The Man." It's why sluggers are booed even amid prolific seasons, why it's really impossible to quantify Ryan Howard's importance no matter how much the stat geeks try. I'll say it again: It's not how many nuclear weapons you have actually fired. It's that you have that capability at any time.
When Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo signed Jayson Werth two winters ago to a 7-year, $126 million contract, he signed him to be The Man. They will say now that it is not so, that Ryan Zimmerman was already there and Bryce Harper was on the way, but neither of those players has produced under the heat of postseason baseball.
Werth had. Batting behind Howard. The money brought status and the status brought expectations and the expectations crushed him last season. He finished with a .232 average, with 20 home runs and 58 runs batted in.
Werth didn't dog it. He wanted badly to reward Rizzo's faith. Too badly. Similarly Pence, who rarely hit in the four-hole before this season, is a guy who wants to be leaned on, but who has been leaning too hard on himself for that to occur.
"Sometimes the fans love me and sometimes they hate me, but I always love them," Pence said Tuesday, repeating a theme. "You know, it weighed on me a little too much. I was carrying it. But I feel like I just . . . "
Broke out? Two home runs, three hits will make you feel that way. But as his manager constantly carps, the big leagues is about consistency, about doing all the little things before you get to the big things. As the ninth-inning bobble underlines, he still appears to be going too fast for his own good, trying a little too hard.
Maybe Tuesday's game will allow him to get off his own back a little more. That's what you read in his face as he got to the plate, where his teammates waited. I asked him if anyone said anything to him when he got there.
"No," he said. "They just beat me up. And it was awesome."
Because someone other than him was doing it?
"Yeah," he said, finally managing a smile.
For recent columns, visit www.philly.com/SamDonnellon.