The All-Star Game gets to be a lot of things to a lot of different people, but for some players, it’s an opportunity. It's an opportunity to represent their team and their city, and maybe, just maybe, do something that reminds fans who don’t see them play every day of what they’re capable of doing.
At Tuesday’s All-Star Game, Hunter Pence of the Houston Astros was exactly that kind of player, and while he didn’t mash a home run or drive anyone in, he made an understated case for why his inclusion as the lone Astro was far from mere tokenism.
Coming into the game off the National League All-Stars bench, Pence was involved in two key plays. The first came in the fourth inning, after Pence replaced starter Matt Holliday in left field. With runners on first and second and two outs, Adrian Beltre lined a single to left. As Jose Bautista, the lead baserunner, got waved home, Pence scooped up the ball and fired home for a clean baserunner kill to end the inning and keep the damage limited to Adrian Gonzalez's solo homer.
Pence was thrilled by the play, stating, “It was way more exciting than hitting a home run. I had a weird intuition that Adrian Beltre was going to hit a line drive to me. … It happened the way I anticipated it.” With Beltre at bat, Pence noted, “he knows how to shorten up, I just wanted to envision what I wanted to do when he hit it to me.” And the last time the Astros’ right fielder had to play in left? “In Lexington, in 2005.”
The lone Astro’s second big play of the night came in the seventh inning. Leading off, he grounded a single through the hole at short. With one out and Pablo Sandoval at the plate, the Mariners’ Brandon League threw a pitch that Orioles catcher Matt Wieters couldn’t come up with -- leading to his first passed ball of the year, if one that will only ever show up in All-Star record books. Pence moved into second, then motored around to third base, setting himself up to easily score on the Panda’s ground-rule double.
Pence deflected credit for his baserunning, noting that when he was initially aboard, "they kept giving me the hold sign. I was like, 'C’mon, I want to go!'” But apparently there was some concern the AL was stealing signs, so no go … until Wieters and League created a loose ball. Pence noted, "Props to Pablo, I was running to second, and he starts waving to me to come around."
Pence was frank about what was motivating him as the Astros' All-Star. "We're going through a tough time. If I got a chance to play, I wanted to give Astros fans and Houston something to be proud of." In some ways, being an All-Star wasn’t any different from his everyday responsibilities: "My mission every day is to be the best player, and the best teammate."
He was especially grateful for the opportunity, not just to represent the Astros but to play, noting, "I had so much adrenaline. And Bruce Bochy did a great job, how he brought everyone in."
Being in Phoenix also created the chance for the odd bittersweet reunion. For one night, at least, he got to be Lance Berkman's teammate again. "Being around Berkman again was awesome. He’s a great story-teller, talking about hitting."
With so much speculation -- or fans flat-out hoping -- that a contending team might add Pence for their own stretch run, it isn't hard to imagine the Big Puma’s fate befalling Pence as well. But in this All-Star Game, he did quite right by the Astros, and it isn't hard to envision how they might instead choose to keep him around for all of the ways he can help a team, not just with his power, but on the field and on the bases.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.