- Associated Press - Friday, June 17, 2011

HOUSTON (AP) - Hunter Pence ranks in the top five in the National League in batting average, RBIs, doubles and hits. His recent 23-game hitting streak is the second longest in the majors this season.

So why is Houston’s star right fielder unhappy?

Simple. His success hasn’t translated into more wins for the Astros, who have the worst record in baseball.

“We’re professional competitors,” he said. “The burden is, we as a team feel like we’re letting the city down. I owe everything and I’m very grateful for all the blessings that baseball has brought me, and I’m not going to do anything other than give everything I have every day. That’s who I am at the core.”

The Astros haven’t made the playoffs since reaching their first World Series in 2005. Pence began his major league career in 2007 and hates that he hasn’t been able to get Houston to the postseason.

“I feel guilty that we haven’t been in the playoffs since I’ve been here and I have to take that personal,” he said. “It just motivates me further to go harder, to be more persistent, to learn more, to focus more and in the end it’s going to make me a better person.”

It would be difficult for the 28-year-old Pence to do more for the team than what he’s done this season. Going into Friday’s games, his .326 batting average was fourth in the NL, his 93 hits ranked second and he was tied for fourth with 51 RBIs.

He dislikes talking about personal success and seemed to cringe each time he was asked about extending his hitting streak. Manager Brad Mills said that attitude is one of the many reasons he’s successful.

“He’s going to give everything he has to help the ball club win and when the ball club isn’t winning, it bothers him,” Mills said. “Him always keeping faced forward and working on getting going in this direction rather than reflecting back is probably one of the qualities that keeps him playing so well and doing so well.”

Pence had 91 RBIs and 173 hits last season, both career highs. If he continues at his current pace he’ll significantly outdo those numbers this season.

“He’s just continued to build on what’s already been a very significant big league career,” general manager Ed Wade said. “I think he’s turned some very significant corners this year. We see longer at bats. We see him laying off pitches he had trouble laying off of in the past. I just think he’s getting more comfortable in his surroundings and I think the results speak for themselves.”

With Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell retiring in recent years, Pence truly became the de facto face and leader of this young team last July when longtime stars Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt were traded.

It’s a role the fifth-year player from Arlington, Texas, had to grow into.

“My role and what I feel on the inside and what I want to do is everything I can to help this team win,” he said. “I know that it entails helping some of the young guys.”

Wade said he and Pence talked about leadership two offseasons ago and at that time the player told him he knew his time would eventually come. Wade told him if he saw a void, then maybe it was his turn to fill it.

To that end, Pence spent much of this offseason at Minute Maid Park working out with younger players including Brett Wallace and Chris Johnson.

“I think Hunter’s interested in spending that extra time that it takes not only to make himself better individually, but the team also,” Wade said. “He has a great passion for us to get this thing straightened out and headed in the right direction.”

Wallace said Pence has been a major factor in helping him adjust to the majors. His .316 batting average in his first full season in the big leagues ranks fifth in the NL.

“Working out with him this offseason we saw the way he goes about his business, how hard he works, the energy he plays with and he just kind of instilled that in us and I think it carried into this season,” Wallace said. “We are all really comfortable with him and he can give us pointers along the way, but he also just leads by example with his energy and passion.”

Pence has missed just one game this season, to rest a sore back. He didn’t want to sit out that day and campaigned to pinch hit.

“He wants to be out there,” Mills said. “You love guys like that and if you have nine guys like that it would be pretty special.”

Two straight seasons of finishing near the bottom of the NL Central hasn’t dampened Pence’s attitude. He tends to remind his teammates that baseball has a long season, with room to get better.

“We’re going to continue to try to win together,” Pence said. “It’s not all about today, it’s about learning the process and growing and by the end of the season maybe everyone looks at it like: ‘Whoa, what just happened? Where did they come from?’ The Astros have had a history of doing that and we’ve got to get the young guys on board to see that that’s going to happen if they stick to the process of doing the right thing.”

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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