‘This postseason has been his’: With every huge home run, ALCS MVP Jeremy Peña emerges as Astros’ heartbeat
NEW YORK – First came the swing, picture-perfect yet vicious. That was followed by the collision of bat on ball, the sphere disappearing 408 feet away into a phalanx of enemy fans who’d soon throw it back, and then another dreamlike journey around the bases.
Finally, came the heart.
As Jeremy Peña crossed home plate with the latest biggest hit of yet another unreal Houston Astros season Sunday night at Yankee Stadium, his hands formed the shape of a heart, which he simply calls a “shoutout to my mom,” Carmen Cecilia Peña, whom he quickly FaceTimed along with other family members seconds after Game 4 of the American League Championship Series.
Soon, in the aftermath of the Astros’ 6-5 victory to vanquish the New York Yankees, Peña’s family back in Providence would see him hoist the Most Valuable Player trophy of this ALCS, earned with his three-run, game-tying shot off Nestor Cortes in the third inning, his second of the series and third this postseason.
Peña sent them to this ALCS by busting up a scoreless tie in the 18th inning of Game 3 at Seattle, another three-run homer, another heart, another memory. And now, after taking this veteran club and pushing it into a second consecutive World Series and fourth in six years, Peña, just 25 years old, a big leaguer since April, has another reason to make that symbol as he touches home.
These Astros have been successful on a near unprecedented level, but they’ve also been through it. The 2017 sign-stealing scandal that accompanied their World Series title has colored every movement in the public eye since, no matter the pennants that followed. The loss of veteran All-Stars George Springer and Carlos Correa in consecutive years made this 2022 championship bid perhaps the most unlikely yet.
Peña was charged with replacing Correa, their brash but sublimely talented shortstop. Peña’s swag is quieter, and he’s not yet close to touching Correa’s offensive production.
But as October draws closer to November, and Peña’s production ramps up as his pulse stays calm, he draws closer to representing the Astros’ heartbeat.
“When we lose Carlos Correa, George Springer, Charlie Morton, Dallas Keuchel – you can’t replace these guys,” mused Game 4 starter and veteran Astro Lance McCullers Jr. “But you gotta do the best you can.
“And Peña is the epitome of what it means to be a Houston Astro. Every day, he shows up ready to grind, ready to win, ready to prove his worth. And this postseason has been his.”
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It’s a scenario few outside the Astros clubhouse could imagine. Peña slugged 22 home runs this season yet will probably finish third in AL Rookie of the Year voting. Nice player. Catches the ball.
And on an Astros club that still features title-winning stalwarts like Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Yuli Gurriel, easy to overlook.
But this kid tabbed to replace Correa after the Astros let him depart in free agency had already left an impression.
“When he showed up on the taxi squad last year,” recalls veteran reliever Ryne Stanek, “he physically looked the part. Getting to see him in spring training, how professional he was, how well he carried himself, how grown and seasoned he’s been, it’s very clear he’s been special from the beginning.
“And he has not disappointed.”
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised. The bloodlines are there – father Geronimo played seven big league seasons with St. Louis and Cleveland – and so is the organizational commitment. Houston drafted Peña in the third round out of college – manager Dusty Baker said Peña “may be the only Dominican dude I know that went to the University of Maine” – and moved quickly even as injuries and the pandemic shutdown limited him to 182 career minor league games.
Usually life comes at you fast. With Peña, it might be the opposite.
“A year ago he was on the taxi squad,” says Baker. “And now he’s MVP of this series.
“But I think it’s important that Carlos passed the torch to him because I’ve seen some players don’t pass the torch. They pass some dynamite. But Carlos passed the torch and he was a mentor to him. This is what baseball and life is all about, rooting for somebody else. We wanted to keep Carlos. Carlos wanted to stay, couldn’t get things together.
“But the organization also felt that Peña was the right guy for the job, and he’s exceeded expectations.”
For Peña, every other word out of his mouth these days seems to be “surreal.” And while McCullers’ point that Peña might be the ultimate Astro is well-taken, his prosperity perhaps best reflects a clubhouse culture that embraces, rather than excludes, young players.
“They welcomed me from day one,” says Peña. “They took care of me from day one. They took me under their wing, showed me the ropes, gave me all the confidence in the world. They just told me go out there, play your game, have fun.”
Says McCullers: “If you’re in this clubhouse and you’re wearing this uniform, you’re one of us. You don’t need to earn your stripes. You don’t need service time. You don’t need to be around for a while and earn it that way. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been here a day or 17 years.
“When you have a clubhouse culture like that, and people feel comfortable in their own skin, I think it lets them blossom.”
When TBS reporter Lauren Shehadi announced Peña as ALCS MVP, the joy on the podium was palpable, and a cheer rang out from friends and family gathered around it. The club is four wins from a World Series title, and the best player in this run can win one as a rookie.
“It definitely was not easy. There was a lot of work that went into this,. A lot of blood, sweat and tears,” says Peña. “This team stuck with one another. We rooted for one another. We picked each other up all year and we battled all year.
“And it’s great to be here at this point.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rookie Jeremy Peña emerges as Astros’ heartbeat in MLB playoffs
Source: Yahoo Sports