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An Astros rookie keeps his composure … most of the time

Special for Infobae of New York Times.

HOUSTON — Growing up in the Dominican Republic and later Providence, Rhode Island, Jeremy Peña dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player. When he and his brother played together, his brother was at shortstop while Pena was at second base, the same position his father played in the major leagues. Still, Peña wanted to emulate a shortstop he saw on television: José Reyes of the New York Mets.

“He was electric,” Peña said in an interview earlier this year. “That enchanted me. I tried to make that part of my game, the energy that he brought.”

Pena, a rookie, has brought that and more to the Houston Astros this year. Replacing the team’s former shortstop Carlos Correa, who left for the Minnesota Twins as a free agent, Peña, 25, has brought power at the plate, defensive prowess on the field and poise everywhere he goes. . Playing a critical position on a team that is on a winning streak, he helped the Astros win 106 regular-season games and their fifth AL West title in six years.

In his first postseason, Peña has been as decisive as Correa, who led the Astros to a World Series title in 2017, marred since by the sign-stealing scandal, and managed to hit 18 home runs during a playoff, in his time. with Houston.

Peña had a game-winning blast in the 18th inning of Game 3 during a sweep of the Seattle Mariners in their best-of-five American League division series. And in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees, Peña was named Most Valuable Player for batting .353 (6-for-17) with two home runs, including one that drove in three runs to tie the game. the score in Game 4 of the aforementioned sweep.

“It’s kind of surreal,” Peña said afterward. “You dream of these things when you’re a kid and I tell my teammates: We show up every day. We stayed true to ourselves all year. We are one step away from the final goal.”

Along the way, Peña has not only earned the respect of his teammates, but many fans as well. From afar, a new admirer has seen him play frequently.

“He’s super talented,” Reyes, 39, said during an interview. “He plays baseball hard and with passion. It’s his first year, and it looks like he’s been in the league for 10 years. He is relaxed and looks like a veteran. He appears to be disciplined. I don’t know him personally, but his style of play is admirable”.

Reyes, who retired after the 2018 season, echoed sentiments many Astros players and officials have about Peña. Unlike Correa, the first overall pick in the 2012 draft by the Astros, Peña was selected out of the University of Maine in the third round just four years ago. And when Correa signed a three-year, $105.3 million deal with the Twins in spring training, Peña had just 182 minor league games under his belt.

“Right now, in his first season, Jeremy is on the biggest stage in the world and he’s fearless,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said during the AL Championship Series. He later added: “There have been ups and downs as there are for everyone throughout a season, but him being able to handle that in his first year has been extremely impressive. I’m just super proud of him.”

Peña said that he had not always been balanced and that he had to work to develop that quality. The beauty of the sport, he said, is its daily life, which forces players to learn humility because a good or a bad game can be fleeting. He has helped lean on his father Geronimo, who played parts of seven seasons with St. Louis and his final season in 1996 with Cleveland.

“Probably, it comes from his background,” manager Dusty Baker said of Peña’s poise, “from his culture, from his father who played, from his mother who he’s close with and the fact that I think he’s the only Dominican I know who went to the University of Maine.”

Without a doubt, Peña has left his mark. Bilingual like Correa and Reyes, he has blended seamlessly between Americans and Latinos in the Astros’ clubhouse. His teammates have been amazed by his range at shortstop. In 136 regular-season games, he hit .253 with a .715 on-base plus slugging percentage and 22 home runs. Only Seattle’s Julio Rodriguez, the favorite for the American League Rookie of the Year award, had more home runs among rookies this year.

In the second half of the season, though, Pena struggled, as many rookies do as opposing pitchers adjust to them. From the All-Star break in mid-July through September 10, Peña posted a .591 on-base percentage. But in an at-bat against Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels, Pena eschewed the usual kick on his swing and instead dropped his left foot early, and it has paid off. From then until the end of the regular season, he posted an .824 on-base percentage with five home runs.

“Before, I was trying to read the pitch when my leg was in the air,” he said. “And then when I told myself to swing, to find the ground and then start swinging. But having my foot on the ground soon is just removing that step and now I have more time to make my decision.”

Perhaps the biggest difference between Peña and the player who shaped his game, Reyes, is his expressiveness on the pitch. While Pena threw his bat after his key shot against the Yankees, he has generally been less flashy than Reyes.

“I was a lot dumber than he was at the time,” Baker, who played 19 seasons in the majors, said of Pena. “A lot of rookies are a bit silly, and sometimes you feed off that silly, like older players do. You need that. But Peña is quiet and he is not distracted”.

Peña had a rare moment of dynamism after that home run. Normally, she makes a heart sign to her mother in the stands as she crosses home plate. But when he came around third base, he shrugged, a gesture made famous by basketball player Michael Jordan.

After the game, while receiving his AL MVP trophy at Yankee Stadium on television, Peña was asked about that moment. “It just came out,” Peña said, smiling sheepishly. Standing next to Peña, Baker asked him to do it again. Peña complied and the Astros laughed.

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