All-Star Pence has become face of Astros
Former franchise star Berkman awed by outfielder's talent
PHOENIX -- It was with the utmost sincerity Monday that Lance Berkman used the term "freakish" to describe the impressive attributes of outfielder Hunter Pence, a former Astros teammate.
"Hunter has always been a dynamic player," said Berkman, who plays for the Cardinals but was a teammate of Pence's in Houston for parts of four seasons from 2007-10.
"He's got freakish ability. I mean, look at him -- he's 6-[foot]-5, can run like a deer and he can hit a ball as far as anyone that I've seen. I'm not surprised at all that he is where he is."
Where is Pence, exactly?
The only players in the National League with a higher batting average are Joey Votto of the Reds (.324) and Jose Reyes of the Mets (.354). And at 28, Pence is just beginning to enter his prime, Berkman said.
"Hunter has a desire to play hard and improve that a lot of people don't have," Berkman said. "He's going to be one of those guys who always hits around .300, hits 20-30 home runs and drives in 100 runs."
For all the struggles the Astros (30-62) have endured in the first half of the season, Pence has been a tremendous bright spot.
The All-Star break finds Pence leading the team in nearly every offensive category: batting average, home runs (11), RBIs (60) and doubles (24), where he's also tied for fourth in the league.
Pence, who is considered a plus defender in right field, is also first in the NL with nine outfield assists.
A former second-round pick, Pence was voted by the players as an NL reserve, marking his second trip to the All-Star Game. However, he's still waiting to get his first taste of action after not appearing in the 2009 Midsummer Classic in St. Louis.
"Ultimately when you look at it, you've been picked to be the best of the best," Pence said. "Just to be out there on the field and have a chance to compete at the highest level, that's what it's all about. I think baseball has one of the best All-Star Games that there is."
Pence has been remarkably consistent this season. He had a 23-game hitting streak at one point and has been hitting higher than .300 since May 24. He hit .294 in April, .342 in May, .307 in June and is batting .384 in July.
That all begs the question: Has Pence ever had a more sustained run of good hitting in his career?
"I don't know. But probably not," he said. "It's still just the first half. There's ebbs and flows in this game. You're going to be tested."
Pence has become the face of the franchise following last year's trades of icons Berkman to the Yankees and Roy Oswalt to the Phillies. Pence's hard-nosed style of play in the outfield and on the basepaths has made him the team's most popular player among fans.
The 28-year-old burst onto the scene in 2007, hitting .322 with 17 homers and 69 RBIs in his first year with the Astros, who drafted him in the second round of the 2004 Draft out of the University of Texas-Arlington. He hit 25 homers in each of the next three seasons, and in '09, he became the 12th Astros outfielder to make the All-Star team.
"If you're using your mind every day to absorb the game, it starts to slow down for you over time. So you kind of understand what pitchers are trying to do to you, and you see things you didn't always see before and situations come easier," Pence said.
"I feel like I have a lot more knowledge now and can see what other teams and pitchers are trying to do to me."
Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. Keep track of @FollowThePadres on Twitter. Brian McTaggart contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.