PHILADELPHIA (AP)Jeremy Pena trotted around third base, looked toward the Houston dugout and gave the most casual two-handed shrug you’ll ever see on a ballfield.
Like it was any routine game in May.
Only this was November. In the World Series. In the biggest game of his life.
Yep, this Pena postseason just kept getting better and better.
Showing the polish and poise of a proven veteran, the 25-year-old Pena put on quite an all-around performance Thursday night. He became the first rookie shortstop to homer in the World Series, added two key singles and made a critical leaping catch in a 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 5.
”Rookie or not rookie, it doesn’t matter,” Pena said. ”We’re in the World Series. You just go out and play. Go compete and let the best man win.”
Having already won the AL Championship Series MVP award and a Gold Glove in the last two weeks, the emerging star from the Dominican Republic helped Houston move one win away from the ultimate prize – the World Series trophy.
Ahead 3-2 in the matchup with the Phillies, it’s hard to imagine now the Astros started the season with many fans wondering how in the world they would replace All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa, who signed with Minnesota as a free agent.
”I never saw it as having to fill shoes,” Pena said. ”I just had to come in and be myself, play my game. But at the end of the season, once we accomplish our goal, which is to go all the way, then I’ll sit down and reflect on the journey. But there’s still work to do and we’ve got to lock in.”
Again proving the biggest moments in baseball aren’t too big for him, the expressive and exuberant Pena grounded a hard RBI single up the middle in the first inning, then reached high to spear Nick Castellanos’ liner to thwart a potential rally in the third.
In the fourth, Pena lofted a go-ahead, solo drive into the left-field seats for a 2-1 lead and chased Phillies starter Noah Syndergaard.
”It felt good off the bat but I didn’t know if it was enough,” Pena said. ”I was running normal and then when the umpire signaled, that’s when I started jogging.”
Pena pointed his right index finger high as he approached second base and slapped his hands together after crossing the bag. He gave a shrug moments later – shades of Michael Jordan, maybe – and put his hands together to form a heart after touching home plate.
No wonder manager Dusty Baker and the Astros love him so much.
”Well, he came into camp as a young player. He had his eyes open. He always paid attention. You could tell he was very attentive and confident, but quiet,” Baker said. ”Boy, he’s played remarkably well. Boy, I mean, he’s really carried us for a while here through this postseason, and that’s especially tough for a young player, a young shortstop. And I’m just glad we have him.”
Pena showed he could play small ball, too, adeptly delivering a hit-and-run single that set up a much-needed insurance run in the eighth.
The three-hit show made Pena 8 for 21 (.381) with a pair of doubles to go along with the homer in the World Series.
That’s all come after he was 7 for 16 (.353) with two home runs and two doubles in the four-game sweep of the Yankees in the ALCS.
”I just go out and enjoy it, have fun, play hard, play my game, and then just trust my preparation,” Pena said. ”There’s a lot of preparation that’s gone into this.”
He credited his Houston teammates for helping him keep his composure under pressure in close games this time of year.
”They prepare for every single game. It rubs off on you. They have a sense of calmness because they have been here I guess four years out of the last six,” Pena said. ”So you just gravitate towards them and just go out and compete and have fun.”
The Astros thought they saw something special as Pena batted .253 with 22 home runs during the regular season while excelling on defense.
This October – and November – the Astros and the baseball world have seen just how special.
”I talked to him earlier in the year about being ready, especially in a clutch situation, and to remain aggressive. And he works at it. He works at his game,” Baker said.
”Every once in a while these guys come along – not that often. But it just goes to show you, I mean, his future is very, very bright.”
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