— DENVER - When the Phillies and Astros hooked up in Florida one day this spring, Charlie Manuel says he joked with Astros third-base coach Dave Clark — one of his former players in Cleveland — "I'm gonna get Pence."
"He told me, 'no you're not','' Manuel said. "You're not going to get Pence.''
A lot had to happen since then for that scenario to unfold, namely: The Phillies' persistent need for a right-handed, middle-of-the-order run producer to replace Jayson Werth, and the Astros' collapse that created a willingness to unload their most-marketable, in-his-prime talent as part of a rebuilding effort.
And technically, it was Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. who beat other interested teams to the punch on Pence by putting prospects Jonathan Singleton, Jarrod Cozart and Josh Zeid into the deal.
But Manuel has Pence now — and the Phillies, already favored to win the National League pennant — are that much better for it.
The Texas Rangers got exactly what they needed in setup men Mike Adams and Koji Uehara. The San Francisco Giants put three new regulars in their punchless lineup in Carlos Beltran, Orlando Cabrera and Jeff Keppinger. The Atlanta Braves solved a couple of issues with one move by adding speedy, leadoff hitter/center fielder Michael Bourn.
But it's hard to argue those teams did any better before the trade deadline than the Phillies did by adding another All-Star who's the perfect fit in their lineup.
"He's going to be a real good player for us,'' Manuel said about Pence. "He's a little amped up right now; he'll settle in. If he just plays the way he played in Houston, our fans are going to like him.
"He's a different kind of hitter (than Werth). Werth takes more pitches. He's more of a balance, technique hitter. (Pence) is more aggressive. He hacks. He has a real strong swing, and he hits the ball all over the field. He's not real disciplined, but he makes a lot of contact.''
The Phillies have won all eight games since Pence's arrival, and sit at a major-league-best 74-39 after taking the first two games of a weekend rematch at AT&T Park against the Giants, who beat them two out of three in Citizens Bank Park last week.
Manuel's vision of a set lineup is playing out to the tune of averaging exactly six runs per game with Pence — and it looks like this: Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Pence, Raul Ibanez, Placido Polanco, Carlos Ruiz.
It's not so much what Pence has done — 13-for-34 (.382), seven RBIs in his first eight games with the Phillies — but how he has lifted Howard as well.
Howard says he's getting more fastballs to hit, and Manuel added, "if he looks at that as a positive, I'll agree with him. Why should I say anything different?''
Howard also has a habit of putting together strong second halves, so this might just be the start of another one.
"Right now, I'm just playing,'' he said. "Can't explain it, don't really want to. It's a long season; you try to find it at some point.''
Pence still is taking it all in. He looks around at his new surroundings, ponders his good fortune and says, "I couldn't have been put in a better situation. It's an opportunity everybody dreams about their whole life — the opportunity to play in the playoffs, for a team with high expectations.''
High expectations, indeed. Here are the Phillies in a nutshell: On Monday, they trailed the Rockies the entire game, and were down to their final strike in the top of the ninth when pinch-hitter John Mayberry Jr. unloaded a game-tying, two-run bomb off Huston Street.
The next inning, Victorino hit a leadoff solo shot, closer Ryan Madson made it hold up, and the Phillies had one of those memorable character wins that teams look back upon in October.
But enter their clubhouse afterward, and Victorino was on his way to the weight room followed by Pence, the music was turned down low, and the sense of business-as-usual was unmistakable.
"That was a remarkable game; what Mayberry did was something special,'' Pence said. "But these guys, they come to play. They expect to win. And when it happens, it's like 'we did our job'.
"The guys are very professional. They prepare — as much or more than I expected. It's cool to see how they go about it. There's a lot to learn from these guys. There's a reason why they're as good as they are.''
Manuel puts it this way: "We've been together for a long time. We definitely know how to play in close games. It's about character and attitude. I see us make mistakes, but for some reason, we play good enough to get by those things. We've come from behind a lot and won close ones, even when we weren't hitting the cover off the ball (earlier in the season). That's the makeup of our team. We expect to win.''
If you want to get picky, the Phillies bullpen isn't as dominant as the Giants' or Braves' — and if form holds, this October figures to be dominated by pitching. But there is help from within.
Roy Oswalt will return to the rotation Sunday, so it's back to the pen for Kyle Kendrick, who threw eight shutout innings in his last start on Tuesday.
Three closers not named Brad Lidge have converted 31 of 32 saves, and posted a 1.13 ERA in those save opportunities. And with Madson temporarily out due to a paternity leave, Lidge — slowly working his way back from rotator cuff and elbow issues — earned his first save of the season and 100th of his career on Thursday.
There will be no displacing Madson as the closer down the stretch, but at least Lidge says he is getting comfortable with a reinvented version of himself. He worked a perfect inning with fastballs topping out at 89 mph, and his signature slider in the 81-83 mph range — both several mph down from his peak a few years ago.
"Right now, I've had the best command I've ever had with the slider,'' Lidge said. "It used to be harder, so I have to have better command, and I've been able to do that. This was the first game where I really felt like I was back and could get people out the way I wanted to. I've had to make adjustments. You still have to get ahead (in the count), with whatever pitch it might be. If I have to reinvest myself, so be it.''