HOUSTON – Jeremy Peña woke up in the wee hours of March 19 in his South Florida apartment, grabbed his cell phone off the nightstand, and immediately saw all of the messages on his Instagram account.
He wiped his eyes, looked again, took a deep breath, and slowly exhaled.
The opportunity of a lifetime was staring him in the face.
Carlos Correa, the All-Star and Gold Glove shortstop, who led the Houston Astros to six playoff berths and three World Series appearances in his seven-year career, was officially an ex-employee.
He agreed to a three-year, $105.3 million contract with the Minnesota Twins, leaving a vacancy at the shortstop position.
“I didn’t go back to sleep after seeing that,” Peña tells USA TODAY Sports. “He made a decision that was best for him and his family, and I respect that.”
Correa also made a decision, of course, that immediately changed Peña’s fate.
“I never saw it as, ‘I’m only going to get my chance if Correa leaves,’ ” Peña said. “I always looked at it as no matter where you are, you do a job, and if you perform, you’re going to get your opportunity.”
The door was suddenly wide open for Peña, and he knocked it off its hinges, winning the job, and proving this first month that he plans to keep it indefinitely.
Peña, 24, has been everything the Astros could have envisioned, and much more. While some rookies have badly struggled, from Bobby Witt Jr. of the Kansas City Royals, Julio Rodriguez of the Seattle Mariners to Spencer Torkelson of the Detroit Tigers, Peña has thrived.
Peña leads all rookies this season with six home runs, a .489 slugging percentage and is tied for first with 15 RBI, through Saturday.
“He came into his role his way,” Astros starter Jake Odorizzi said. “He didn’t try to be somebody he wasn’t. We knew how phenomenal he was with the glove.
“Obviously, he’s got big shoes to fill coming in after Carlos, but he’s done it the right way.”
No one’s comparing Peña to Correa, one of the game’s elite shortstops who received the richest average salary for an infielder in baseball history, but the sting of Correa’s departure certainly has subsided.
“Obviously, he’s talented,” Astros All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve says, “but he’s a very humble guy, loves to work hard, and wants to learn. That’s why he’s here.
“He’s going to be good, really good. He’s going to be a superstar-caliber player.
One man will be closely watching and eagerly awaiting his arrival in Minneapolis on Tuesday when the Astros play a two-game series against the Twins at Target Field: Correa.
Correa, who rejected a five-year, $160 million contract from Houston, with the Astros refusing to budge by giving him an opt-out or a contract longer than five years, will get a first-hand look at his protégé.
“I can’t wait to see him,” Peña said. “Really, I can’t wait to thank him. He has meant so much to me.”
It was two years ago when Peña arrived to the Astros’ spring training camp, and one of the first men to greet him, guide him, and counsel him, was Correa.
Who knew that Peña would become his heir apparent?
“Carlos has been great to me since the first day I met him,” Peña said. “He’s been great. He’s helped me out so much. A mentor to me. He’s helped me prepare for games, how to stay steady in a season, how to focus on work, really, everything physically and mentally.
“He was never worried about some kid coming in and trying to take his job. He just wanted to help me become a major leaguer. I’ll always remember what he did for me.”
Peña, the son of seven-year veteran Geronimo Peña, leaned on his father for advice growing up. Yet, he was born after his father’s last season, and never saw him play. He instead listened to the stories and they watched games together.
His all-time favorite growing up was Jose Reyes of the New York Mets, Peña says, loving his energy and enthusiasm. He admired Alex Rodriguez’s sheer talent. He doesn’t remember watching much of Omar Vizquel during his playing days, but studied all of his videos. And, of course, he was taught all about the greatness of Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith, his father’s teammate with the St. Louis Cardinals.
“I didn’t get to see him play,” Peña said, “but my dad always put Ozzie on me. He kept saying, ‘This is the guy you need to learn from.’ I learned a lot from Ozzie Smith without even seeing him play.”
Peña, who moved from the Dominican Republic to Providence, Rhode Island, when he was 12, attending the University of Maine, now has aspiring kids watching him.
He was not even fazed meeting Mike Trout in his first game this year, although he was stunned by his size. “Man, he’s a big dude.” He took delight in Shohei Ohtani welcoming him to the show. And he laughed when he was at a local Whole Foods grocery store, heard someone yelling his name as if he were a fan, only to discover it was Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson.
“The guys give me advice,” Peña says, “telling me, ‘Hey, just keep playing your game. It’s the same game. Just play hard and have fun. And don’t forget to enjoy it, because at the end of the day, this is a dream. So enjoy it, play hard and compete.’ “
Oh, Peña sure is doing that, whether it’s hitting his first career home run on April 9 while his parents were being interviewed on TV, hitting a walk-off homer last Monday, or driving in two runs in manager Dusty Baker’s 2,000th victory last Tuesday. He has surprised scouts with his power, already hitting six homers in 90 at-bats compared to the 30 homers his dad hit during his entire seven-year career.
“Nothing seems to faze him,” says Astros All-Star third baseman Alex Bregman. “He’s very good at compartmentalizing, saying ‘I’m not going to take my bat to the field or my glove to the plate.’ To do that at a young age is really special, being able to stay locked in.
“He’s so impressive with his work ethic, nothing surprises me.”
Peña missed all of 2020 when COVID-19 canceled the entire minor-league season, playing only 37 games last year after undergoing wrist surgery. He played only 30 games above Class A when he arrived to camp this spring. Yet, instead of sitting around and feeling sorry for himself, he spent the past two winters playing for Estrellas in the Dominican League under manager Fernando Tatis Sr.
His work ethic has always been off the charts, but he learned not to let any defensive error affect his offense, or any strikeout affect his defense.
“I learned to separate everything at Maine and at the beginning of my pro career,” Peña said. “Not just my offense and my defense, but I learned how to separate pitches, and how to separate at-bats, learn how to build off the good, learn off the bad, and play the game as if nothing has happened.”
Really, the only thing that has shaken up Peña so far was the mind-blowing irony that he had two singles with two RBI in Baker’s historic 2,000th victory. Guess who was the opposing leadoff hitter who had two singles for the Cardinals in Baker’s first game as manager in 1993?
Yep, his dad.
“I heard that stat, and I didn’t want to believe it,” Peña said. “I still can’t believe it. Come on, how is that possible?”
Baseball, where dreams can turn into reality, no matter how you get the opportunity to make it.
“It would be so tough to come in for a guy like Correa with the teams wanting you to be the same if not do more,’ says Arizona Diamondbacks infielder Josh Rojas, Peña’s roommate during an Astros strength camp. “He found a way to deal with pressure, and use it as a chip on his shoulder or disregard it altogether.
“He’s been going above and beyond filling that role, watching him fly through the system, and filling those shoes that Correa left.
“We’re all so happy for him.”
EXCLUSIVE: Behind the scenes with Dusty Baker after his historic 2,000th win
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Hit, run, throw, speed, power, and … talk.
Baseball is the only major team sport where you can sit back, turn on the TV, and not only listen to the broadcast crew, but even players themselves these days.
It was a novelty that began during the All-Star Game and spring training, but on the night of Aug. 30, 2020, history was made.
It was the first time a player was being interviewed live during a game that actually counted when Philadelphia Phillies All-Star outfielder Bryce Harper spoke to the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball crew.
Now, it has become as much a fixture in the game as bubble gum, pine tar and dead baseballs.
This week it will be Justin Turner of the Los Angeles Dodgers being mic’d during their game at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs. Last week, it was New York Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor who was mic’d and talking when turning a double play. The first week was Cincinnati Reds All-Star first baseman Joey Votto asking Atlanta second baseman Ozzie Albies whether he should get a gold tooth.
“They’ve all been great but with Votto being the first this year, you didn’t really know what to expect,” said ESPN play-by-play broadcaster Karl Ravech, who will miss Sunday’s game with COVID-19. “But the level he went to, and the dialogue he had, he set the bar so high. When Votto retires, I’m sure he’ll get into comedy.”
Mark Gross, ESPN’s senior vice president of production, believes the dialogue with the player and broadcast booth not only provides fabulous entertainment for the fans, but helps enhance the players’ own brand. They make sure to usually have the conversation in the third or fourth inning, not to interfere with potential late-inning dramatics. ESPN has the exclusive rights to all of the first-round wild-card games this year, but there have been no discussions to even ask players if they’re willing to be mic’d during postseason games.
Now, if they volunteer, ESPN isn’t about to say no.
Who knows, maybe this concept will work in other team sports? Can you imagine an NFL player wearing a mic? An NBA player running up and down the court? An NHL goalie?
“Baseball lends itself better to it than the other sports,” Gross said. “We’d love to do it in the NHL, but there’s a significant safety issue, having this conversation while another guy is coming at him.”
The dream scenario for baseball would be for a pitcher or catcher to be mic’d, talking between pitches, or perhaps even a manager?
“We just want to bring our fans closer to the game and the players,” Gross says. “We think it’s fantastic. But we don’t want to be the story, or be intrusive. We want guys to be excited about doing it.”
So far, so good.
Surely, it will be a concept that baseball’s other broadcast partners will try to copy, whether it’s TBS, Peacock, Apple or the MLB Network.
Around the basepaths
► The San Diego Padres and Cleveland Guardians, according to two high-ranking officials, said they actually reached a deal sending third baseman Jose Ramirez to the Padres, only for it to be nullified when Ramirez decided instead to sign a team-friendly five-year, $124 million extension.
Ramirez not only badly wanted to stay in Cleveland, but did not want to switch positions. He would have had to play second base in San Diego with Manny Machado entrenched at third base.
► Trevor Story, who has been getting crushed by the Red Sox fans for his early-season struggles, and heavily booed during his four-strikeout performance this past week, wanted no part of Boston in the first place.
He badly wanted to sign in his hometown and play for the Texas Rangers, with one official saying that the Rangers actually pursued him before Corey Seager. Yet, when Story’s former agent continued to seek a higher contract, the Rangers pivoted and signed Seager to a 10-year, $325 million contract. The Rangers then doubled down and signed Marcus Semien to a seven-year, $175 million deal, leaving Story to fall in the Red Sox’s lap on a six-year, $140 million deal.
The ink was barely dry on his contract when Story fired his sports agency.
► Teams are spending a whopping $179.7 million this year on players who no longer are on their roster, releasing them or simply paying them to go away.
There are five teams who have at least $20 million in dead money on their 2022 payroll now that the New York Mets designated Robinson Cano and the remaining $40.5 million they owe him.
The Baltimore Orioles are paying Chris Davis $20.1 million this year.
The Boston Red Sox have $21.3 million in dead money on the books, still paying David Price $16 million to pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Los Angeles Angels are paying Justin Upton $28 million, a year after releasing Albert Pujols and his $30 million contract.
The Texas Rangers are paying $20.05 million to players no longer in the organization, mostly to Elvis Andrus and Rougned Odor, but still including Alex Rodriguez, who last played for the Rangers in 2003.
► It’s flat-out wrong to to say the Cincinnati Reds are tanking this year.
They just happen to stink.
They have a $114 million payroll after adding $7.5 million outfielder Tommy Pham in spring training, but they have had 18 players on the injured list, their starting pitching is atrocious, and veteran All-Star first baseman Joey Votto is hitting just .122 with only one extra-base hit.
Their starting rotation is yielding an 8.91 ERA, threatening the all-time worst record of 6.64 by the 1996 Detroit Tigers. The opposition is hitting .325/.413/.573, which is quite similar to the stats that Christian Yelich produced when he won the NL MVP in 2018, as statistician Jeremy Frank points out.
The worst start in the National League since 1894.
► Scouts don’t know if he’ll be the first pick in the amateur draft in July, but they say easily the most talented player in the draft is outfielder Druw Jones, son of 10-time Gold Glove winner and five-time All-Star Andruw Jones.
Also, keep an eye on infielder Jackson Holliday, the son of seven-time All-Star outfielder Matt Holliday, who also should be a top-10 pick.
► The Red Sox were 63-40, a .612 winning percentage on July 28, 2021, when they lost 13-1 to the Toronto Blue Jays.
Well, ever since that day, the Red Sox are 39-47 (.453 winning percentage), including 10-18 this season.
They have a multitude of woes, but none bigger than the back end of their bullpen, where they have blown seven saves, two more than any team in baseball.
Closer Matt Barnes continues to be an absolute mess.
He was a dominant reliever last year, averaging 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings with a 3.79 ERA and 1.12 WHIP.
He was rewarded with a two-year, $18.75 million contract extension on July 10, 2021, and since has melted down. He has a 7.84 ERA this season.
“We can’t give up on him,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora says. “He’s very important to what we’re trying to accomplish.”
► Do you realize the Brewers have had 11 different opening day first basemen since 2011 when Prince Fielder was on the team? But perhaps they finally found their man with Rowdy Tellez, who drove in a franchise-record eight runs this week against the Cincinnati Reds. He is hitting 270 with seven homers, 24 RBI and a .925 OPS through Saturday.
“You throw him a strike,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell told reporters, “and it’s a dangerous pitch.”
► Cool moment this week with North Carolina State roommates Trea Turner of the Dodgers and Carlos Rodon of the Giants facing one another for the first time. Rodon was selected third in the 2014 draft while Turner was picked 13th.
Turner went 1-for-3 with a double off Rodon in their first meeting.
“I got him,” Turner said.
► New York Mets reliever Yoan Lopez, who was suspended three games for throwing at Kyle Schwarber of the Philadelphia Phillies, may be paying a big price for his retaliatory pitches.
Considering he was optioned to Triple-A after the game, whenever he returns, he must serve his three-game suspension. So, it would make much more sense for the Mets to wait until expanded rosters in September to now call him back up.
“How can you call someone up,” Mets manager Buck Showalter says, “who can’t pitch?”
► The A’s managed to make history at the Coliseum last week.
They became the first team in franchise history to go winless on a homestand of six or more games since 1956 when they were still in Kansas City.
Their offense has been brutal, scoring no more than one run in eight of their past 13 games, including five or fewer hits seven times, while batting .178.
► Excuse me, has anyone seen Nelson Cruz?
The Nationals signed the 41-year-old DH to a one-year, $15 million contract, believing he has plenty left in the tank after averaging 39 homers a year for the past seven full seasons.
Well, he’s hitting just .150 with three homers and a .240 slugging percentage this season.
► Pardon the Red Sox for not being fans of the remodeling at Camden Yards where the Orioles renovated their outfield, moving the left-field wall back 26½ feet and making it six feet higher.
“Brutal,” slugger J.D. Martinez said. “I hate it.”
Camden Yards has now gone from the easiest AL ballpark to homer to the toughest.
“I think every hitter hates it,” Martinez said. “It’s hard enough as it is and the dimensions before were proportional. I think every ballpark should be unique but within the dimensions, not this extreme thing to stop home runs.”
► Can a No. 5 starter really win the Cy Young award?
Eric Lauer, who was the Brewers’ fifth starter to open the season, just happens to be dominating the NL this year, going 3-0 with a 1.82 ERA, striking out 42 batters in 29⅔ innings with a 0.94 WHIP.
“A lot of it has to do with confidence,” he recently told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “A lot of confidence in all my pitches right now. A lot of confidence in the way that I’m driving down the mound, the way games are being called.
“Just very confident with everything I am throwing up there.”
Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jeremy Peña making the Astros forget all about Carlos Correa