Pence seeks to sharpen mind
Outfielder studies chess on day off after baserunning miscue
NEW YORK -- Hunter Pence sat in his fold-up chair and stared at the alternating blue and white boxes on the page. He was reading about chess, a game the 25-year-old Astros outfielder has begun to study in place of the computer and video games of his youth.
"Kind of grown out of it, got a little bored," Pence said of Internet games such as Halo and Warcraft. "It's time for me to do something more productive with my mind and body. And I feel like chess is a little better for problem solving and to just sharpen your mind."
Similarly, his wits were tested on the bases Friday. With Pence on third base with the Mets' infield back in the second inning, Brad Ausmus shot a grounder to shortstop Jose Reyes. At the depth in which a grounder would be played, third-base coach Ed Romero had instructed Pence to run if the ball made it past the mound.
But Pence froze. He admitted he was thinking too much.
"I couldn't go if it was hit to the corners," Pence said. "You have to freeze on a line drive, see if it went by the pitcher."
By the time Pence had processed everything, Reyes was pumping toward third to keep him on.
In a game where the Astros were "scratching" for runs against the Mets' Johan Santana, manager Cecil Cooper said there was no excuse for the mistake. He sat down with Pence, talked it over, and while the outfielder wasn't getting a day off Saturday for precisely that play, Cooper wanted Pence to think everything over.
Pence is batting .171 (6-for-35) in his past 10 games, and the Astros need their usually aggressive baserunner to make a run for it in that situation.
"In Pence's case, it's more about the mental side of the game -- a couple of instances on the bases that are a little frustrating, I think to us and him," Cooper said. "Just give him a day to kind of relax, and his swing hasn't been the Hunter kind of swing."
If Pence scored on Ausmus' groundout, the score would have been tied at one run apiece, which Cooper said could have changed the complexion of Friday's 3-0 loss to the Mets. But the Astros' right fielder knows he made an error in judgment, something he realized seconds after being stuck at third.
Now, he has to move on.
"I never want a day off, but that's not my decision," Pence said Saturday. "We are here to win, and we are going to put the best team out there to win, and today, I wasn't in the lineup."
Pence still approached Saturday with a passion, much of that being spent poring over his newfound interest -- chess. He played it against relatives as a youngster, but never seriously.
Expect Pence to be online soon, not playing kids' games, but instead holding court with thousands of players on Yahoo's chess server. He hears they have a rating system, so he will find out how he stacks up soon. And, who knows, maybe maneuvering around the board will quicken his thinking on the baseball diamond -- and keep him out of checkmate on the bases.
"It's something I want to pick up and start playing," Pence said. "Just reading about it, it seems like a fun game ... and, anything to sharpen your mind."
Jon Blau is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.