LOS ANGELES -- So maybe Jimmy Rollins isn't the general manager. But for a guy with as much sweat equity invested in the Phillies as anybody, you bet Rollins was scanning the trade rumors as July ticked toward a close.
Scanning with a laser-like focus as the rumor mill churned out the name of one Hunter Pence, Houston Astros.
"He's the guy I wanted," Rollins says. "He was the guy I personally wanted."
It's easy to see why. And not just because, in his first 10 games with the Phillies, Pence is batting .366 with a .400 on-base percentage, two homers and seven RBI.
|Hunter Pence is the right-handed bat that the Phillies have been missing since Jayson Werth left for D.C. (Getty Images)|
No. It's all of that, plus this: To an already loaded lineup, Pence is like ordering the extra Whiz on a Philly Cheesesteak.
"We were a great team before, and we could have done it without him," center fielder Shane Victorino says. "But when I saw the [trade rumors] and saw maybe Hunter or Carlos Quentin were available, I said, 'Why not?'"
Pence adds the one missing ingredient: The right-handed bat that has been absent since the Phillies said adios to Jayson Werth last winter.
Pence is younger than Werth (28, as opposed to 32) and cheaper ($6.9 million this year and not eligible for free agency until after next season, as opposed to seven years, $126 million).
And nestled in the fifth spot in the lineup, he adds instant protection for lefty slugger Ryan Howard in Philadelphia's now beautifully re-balanced lineup, allowing manager Charlie Manuel to move Victorino back to the two hole behind leadoff man Rollins.
"He takes a lot of pressure off of Ryan to drive in runs," Rollins says. "And that will allow him to drive in a lot more because he'll be more relaxed."
"He fits in great," Victorino says. "He's not only made our team better, he's made everybody else better. He's protecting Ryan and [lefty] Raul Ibanez."
Marooned in Houston on a wretched team about to get worse, Pence still didn't believe the rumors he was headed for Samsonite Player of the Week status until just a couple of days before the July 31 trade deadline.
It didn't sink in for real, he says, until he was removed from Houston's July 29 game in Milwaukee and told he was ticketed for Philadelphia in exchange for four players -- two minor-league pitchers, a minor-league first baseman and a player to be named later.
He joined the Phillies the next day against the Pirates, banged out a single and proceeded to hit in each of his first eight games with his new club.
"They've embraced me," Pence says. "Unbelievable teammates. People taking care of you in the front office. The staff.
"There's a lot to learn. And I think the coolest thing about it is, there are MVPs in this clubhouse, Cy Youngs ... there's a lot to take from."
And he has so much to give.
In the Phillies' first 10 games with Pence hitting behind him in the lineup, Howard is hitting .308 (12 for 39) with six doubles, four homers and 11 RBI.
When Pence arrived, Howard was hitting .246. (For the season, he's at .252.)
"I don't feel any pressure," Pence says. "At this level, you have to perform. I understand how to prepare. I understand the process."
He was saying this Monday afternoon, an interview to which he consented only after delaying it long enough to study video of that night's opposing pitcher, Hiroki Kuroda, for some 20 minutes.
"I like everything about him," manager Charlie Manuel says. "He's genuine, and most of all, he can hit. He brings a lot of energy, and a lot of effort."
The energy part is not lost on the rest of the team, either. These Phillies have set the bar in the NL since 2008 not just because of their talent, but because of their desire. In Rollins, Victorino, Chase Utley and now Pence, there are any number of players whose steely will to win sometimes is the difference between a W and an L.
"The mentality we have now, to have a guy like him who lives, breathes and dies baseball, who wants to win and is never going to be out-hustled," says starter Cole Hamels. "That's what Philadelphia likes, guys who aren't afraid to run into walls."
Pence runs like a young colt, all legs and frisky enthusiasm. He's a two-time All-Star, leads the majors in outfield assists since 2008 (arms, legs ... sometimes it seems as Pence is all limbs) and currently leads all NL right fielders in batting average, hits and RBI.
It's all adding up exactly the way Rollins envisioned when he put Pence, a Texas native, atop his personal wish list.
Except for one thing.
"He's 100 percent different than I expected," Rollins says. "He's crazy.
"I think there's a stigma with Houston guys, that they're country boys. Because Houston's done a great job with keeping their guys local.
"First thing I asked Hunter when he came into our clubhouse was, 'What do you want to listen to today, a little country?' And he said, 'No, I'm a rock and rap guy. I'm not country.' He made it very emphatic. He said, 'I'm a DF-Dub guy [Dallas-Fort Worth].'
"He has no accent. Everything you stereotype from a Houston guy, he's not. He's on the other side."
Especially now, especially in Philly, where the team with the baseball's best record rocks on.