Aubrey Huff feeling right at home
Comfortable playing before friends and family and as DH, lefty drills big Game 4 HR
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Pat Burrell, the more dashing half of the San Francisco Giants' Miami-Tampa Bay refugee program, took the night off in Game 4 of the World Series to clear his head after a four-strikeout debacle Saturday. He's expected to return to the starting lineup against Cliff Lee on Monday, when San Francisco will try to clinch its first world championship since 1954.
When Giants manager Bruce Bochy reconfigured his lineup Sunday for a more left-handed look against Texas starter Tommy Hunter, things shook out like this: Travis Ishikawa wound up at first base, Nate Schierholtz landed in right field and Aubrey Huff stowed his glove and prepared for a nice, productive night in the designated hitter slot.
Lots of big leaguers -- Burrell included -- have trouble coping with the unique demands of the DH role. They have difficulty staying mentally engaged, or physically loose, or take personal offense at the notion that they might be perceived as "half a player.''
Not Huff, Burrell's old Miami Hurricanes buddy and fellow Tampa Bay Rays expatriate. From the moment he got the news, he looked forward to a defense-free, thoroughly hack-tastic evening.
"Aubrey likes DH-ing,'' Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens said. "He's comfortable with it. He had a big smile on his face today, because he didn't have to play defense and he was basically pinch hitting four times.''
Two of those at-bats were harmless ground balls to first base, and Huff also struck out swinging. But when it's late October, all it takes is one healthy cut to generate a lifetime of memories.
Huff gave Giants starter Madison Bumgarner all the offense he needed in the third inning, when he drove an 86 mph cutter from Hunter over the right-field fence for a two-run homer. Bumgarner and closer Brian Wilson made the early lead stand up, and San Francisco beat the Rangers 4-0 to take a 3-1 lead in the Series.
Huff, as die-hard Giants-watchers and baseball fashionistas are well aware, has been wearing a trusty red good-luck thong beneath his uniform for about two months. When he's not providing the Giants with leadership and clutch hits, he's also dispensing comic relief.
"It hasn't left my body since 30 games left in the regular season,'' Huff said Sunday, when asked about the thong. "It's something you get quite used to after a while. I always wonder how women do it, but it's really not a big deal anymore.''
By now, San Francisco has a well-deserved reputation as a mecca for second chances and inspirational comeback stories. Long before general manager Brian Sabean signed Burrell to a minor league deal and claimed Cody Ross off waivers, he was adding Huff to the fold for an affordable $3 million in January. The Giants were just looking for a relatively low-cost, run-producing bat from the left side. Little did they know that Huff would lead the team in batting average (.290), home runs (26), RBIs (86), hits (165) and on-base percentage (.385).
"He's definitely the team MVP this season,'' Meulens said.
Throughout the clubhouse, Huff's teammates have also credited him with helping the team navigate the emotional swings of a 162-game season. It became clear that Huff would put an entertaining stamp on things early in spring training, when he dispensed wisecracks and sarcastic comments in abundance and strutted around as if he owned the place.
The best part was, Huff seemed to expect that his fellow Giants would give him the business right back. As one former Huff teammate once observed, "That's Aubrey's shtick.''
"He's just kept us loose all year,'' Ishikawa said. "You're going to hit rough patches in this game. I know we did a few times this year, where we couldn't score any runs or get any wins. Aubrey was one of the guys who kept things relaxed so that we wouldn't be pressing or stressing. He helped us remember that it's just a game, and the next day is going to be a new day.''
Huff's life has been one long lesson in perspective, and it all traces back to his roots in Texas. He grew up near Fort Worth in the town of Mineral Springs, and experienced a life-altering heartache at age 6 when his father, an electrician, was shot and killed in 1983 while trying to intervene in a domestic dispute at an apartment complex in Abilene.
Huff's mother, Fonda, raised Aubrey and his sister, and somehow came up with the money to build him a batting cage in the backyard while working as a clerk for the Winn-Dixie supermarket chain.
As a teenager, Huff spent lots of time watching the Rangers play in Arlington. He was a regular at Dollar Hot Dog nights, and grew up following Juan Gonzalez, Pudge Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro and Steve Buechele, hoping that he might turn out to be the next Nolan Ryan. One of Huff's biggest regrets in life came on June 11, 1990. He had tickets to a Rangers game, but Fonda was too tired from a long day at work to take him. As it turned out, Ryan pitched his sixth career no-hitter that night against Oakland.
The trip back to Arlington for the Series has been one big stroll down memory lane. Huff had a bunch of relatives at Game 4. His wife, Baubi, had relatives at the game. He had high school buddies in town and planned to meet them for lunch, but had to cancel his plans when Baubi and their two children didn't feel well Sunday morning.
"You see so many faces that you recognize in the stands during stretching,'' Huff said. "But once the game starts, you don't even realize how many people are out there that you went to high school with. To be able to come back and do something special like this, it's surreal.''
Huff had lots of experience to fall back on for his brief hiatus from first base Sunday night: In 406 regular-season games as a designated hitter, he's hitting .278 with an .816 OPS. In 2008, he won a Silver Slugger Award and led the American League in extra-base hits while making 98 starts at DH in Baltimore.
In his big at-bat against Hunter, Huff jumped all over the first pitch. He waited long enough for the ball to travel deep in the strike zone, and his top hand took over and allowed him to get plenty of backspin on the ball and keep it fair. Seconds later, he was in the middle of one immensely gratifying home run trot.
Here's one for the trivia buffs: Huff and Giants catcher Buster Posey became the first Nos. 3-4 hitters to homer in a World Series road win since Reggie Smith and Ron Cey went deep in Game 2 of the 1977 World Series for the Dodgers.
"When you're jumpy, you fly open and everything hooks,'' Huff said. "As soon as I hit that one tonight, I knew I had it.''
True to form, Huff wasn't shy about returning to the dugout and letting his teammates know who was boss. But then, what did you expect from a guy with the self-assurance to tell everyone he's wearing a thong for good luck?
"Aubrey had a little fun with it,'' Meulens said. "He told all the other guys, 'Now that's how you DH right there.'"