Hardworking rookie Peña shines for Astros in playoffs
When Jeremy Peña played at the University of Maine, coach Nick Derba was treated to a familiar sight every morning when he arrived on campus.
“He would be out in the field every morning running sprints with a tire wrapped around him tied to a piece of yellow string,” Derba recalled this week. “He’s the only player I’ve coached in nine years who has beaten me at work every day.”
Just four years after leaving Maine, Peña helped lead the Houston Astros to the World Series in shortstop’s rookie season. Next up is Game 1 against the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday night.
“He outdid everyone,” Derba said. “You see a lot of big leaguers, baseball is their source of happiness and their sanctuary. And I think Jeremy really embodied that when he came here, and lived on the ground. He did what he had to do in class, but the reality was that baseball was truly his passion and the focus of his life. And you could tell.
Peña has hit .253 with 22 home runs and 63 RBIs for the AL West champions this year. But the 25-year-old has become a playoff star for the mostly veteran Astros.
In Game 1 of the AL Division Series against Seattle, Peña scored a two-out single in the ninth to set up Yordan Alvarez’s three-run homer in an 8-7 victory. He hit another single in Game 2 before an Alvarez home run that helped Houston earn another win.
But his biggest ALDS moment came in Game 3. Neither team had scored before Peña drove a Penn Murfee fastball into the center seats in the 18th inning for his first playoff homer. in a 1-0 victory, completing the sweep.
This performance in his first playoff series was only a precursor to more playoff success in the second round.
Peña hit two doubles and a solo homer in Game 1 of the ALCS against the New York Yankees. He added a hit in Game 2 and rebounded from a quiet Game 3 with two hits, highlighted by a three-run homer as Houston swept a second straight series.
He finished the ALCS with a .353 GAA and .824 hitting percentage, earning the MVP award.
Soft-spoken and humble, Peña often takes the focus away from himself to focus on the team. That’s exactly what he did minutes after receiving the ALCS MVP trophy.
“Thanks to my teammates,” he said. “We show up every day. We stayed true to ourselves all year. We are one step away from our ultimate goal.
Derba has followed Peña’s career closely and is in regular contact with him. He called Peña “the team of team guys” and wasn’t surprised he praised his teammates instead of talking about himself after picking up his gear after the ALCS.
“I texted him the other night and said, ‘Hey, go get a World Series MVP,'” Derba said. “And his blunt response was, ‘Let’s go win a World Series.’ It’s never about Jeremy in his mind, and I think that makes it a lot easier not to let the bright lights get to you.
Peña’s emergence this season is just the latest example of how the Astros continue to win year after year despite losing big names. Star outfielder and 2017 World Series MVP George Springer signed with the Blue Jays after the 2020 season and the Astros lost starters Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton after reaching the World Series in 2019.
Houston’s biggest loss this year was two-time All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa, who signed with the Twins. Correa’s departure put Peña in a position to take over for the 2015 AL Rookie of the Year and one of the franchise’s longtime faces.
It became apparent almost immediately that Peña would be fine. It was a development that didn’t surprise Derba and the people of Maine at all.
“If you ask anyone who has coached Jeremy long enough or played with Jeremy here at university or in the summer league in Cape Town, I don’t think anyone would ever sit there and say that he wasn’t going to be able to fill the shoes,” Derba said.
Manager Dusty Baker believes Peña’s smooth transition to the majors was helped by his close relationship with his family, including his father Gerónimo Peña, who played at the majors from 1990 to 1996.
“He’s got a lot of support from his mom and dad and his teammates here,” Baker said. “He’s a very confident but humble young man. He’s in a position where, people say it’s hard to win with a young shortstop, a receiver and a center back and a young pitching staff, but he grasped the situation, the responsibility for it.
Peña agreed and said he inherited his work ethic from his family.
“It’s something that was born in me,” he said. “I always felt like I never had to leave my house to find role models because I had my parents who came from nothing in the Dominican Republic and they always taught us the value of hard work and discipline. So it’s something that I took with me everywhere I went.
Until the World Series.
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