Pence and Bourn flourish, Astros continue draft preparations

Hunter Pence began Thursday ranked fourth in the National League with a .346 batting average, fifth in multi-hit games and fourth in home batting average, but the Astros right-fielder remained indifferent.

“You could find a way to put yourself in the top 10 in stats in anything, but winning ballgames is what matters,” he said. “Average is kind of overrated. It’s getting the hits when you’re team needs them and getting the big hits.”

Pence, who hit .269 with 25 homers and 83 RBIs last year in his first full season in the Major Leagues,  credits teammate Lance Berkman with helping him iron out some problems he was having at the plate last season. The results began to show when Pence hit .302 last September.

“Lance took me into the video room and I kind of figured out part of the reason I had trouble hitting,” he said.” I was kind of closing myself off. You just make the adjustments. It’s part of learning to swing at strikes. It’s still difficult. I’m still going to swing at balls and I’m still going to strike out but I’m putting the ball in play more often and giving myself a chance to succeed.”

Manager Cecil Cooper was quick to heap praise on Pence.

“Hunter’s a great player and he’s got a chance to be even better,” he said. “From a year ago to now, he is light years better, and I think he will continue to grow. He’s an outstanding player. He’s more patient this year. A year ago you could probably get him to swing at most pitches, especially when he got to two strikes, but now he’s taking walks.

“He’s probably got more walks now than he had all of last year (actually 26 this year; 40 in 2008) and that’s been the biggest key for Hunter. We know he has power and can hit the ball to all fields and has infield singles, but he can hit the ball out of the ballpark.”

If there is one area Pence wants to improve on, it’s driving in runs. His 22 RBIs entering Thursday ranked fifth on the team behind Miguel Tejada, Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Ivan Rodriguez.

“I need to get the bigger hits when runners are on base and have more extra -base hits,” he said. “That’s what this team needs me to do offensively. I need to take my walks, which I’ve done good at, but I need to drive guys in.”

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Astros manager Cecil Cooper fielded countless questions in recent days about Hunter Pence, but Cooper thinks Michael Bourn is getting shortchanged. Bourn began Thursday hitting .295 with a .368 on-base average and had an NL-leading 18 stolen base.

“He has been a very consistent player and nobody talks about him,” he said. “He can get on base a lot and create havoc with his legs and he’s stealing at a pretty good clip. He’s not running just to be running; he’s running when it helps us to score runs and that’s good. We talked about Hunter a lot but Michael Bourn has been every bit as important to us.”

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The Astros will have about 40 high school and college players working out at Minute Maid Park on Friday afternoon in advance of Tuesday’s First-Year Player Draft. Pitcher Jordan Lyles and outfielder Jay Austin were among the future Astros draftees who worked out in Houston last year.

“It’s probably the last at what have been multiple looks at these kids,” general manager Ed Wade said. “You try to bring them into this surrounding and see how they handle it.”

While scouts have been gather information on the prospects for months, Wade said there are a handful of players the club plans to sit down and talk with.

“You’re not just scouting talent, but to use one of Dallas Greene’s sayings, you’re scouting head and heart as well,” Wade said. “You want to know about character and makeup and you want your scouts to know kids’ families, and not just from a signability standpoint.

The Astros brought in director of Latin American scouting Felix Francisco this week to give him perspective with regards to how the draft boards are put together and what the domestic guys are looking for. Scouting director Bobby Heck and national cross checker David Post went to the Dominican last year to see workouts. 

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