tampabay.com

Pena relishes every moment

The 1B joined the Rays after a nomadic career and is intent on making it work.

By EDUARDO A. ENCINA
Published May 8, 2007


BALTIMORE - Carlos Pena has no worries.

With two hits in Sunday's 5-3 loss to Oakland, the Devil Rays first baseman raised his average above the Mendoza line to .215. He has received more publicity this season for a ball he hit foul; his towering pop fly Wednesday hit the B-ring catwalk behind home plate and never came down.

But life is great for Pena. He's back in a major-league uniform. He brings a smile to the ballpark every day along with an attitude that he takes nothing for granted. That has made Pena a favorite of manager Joe Maddon.

"He's so good for us as a group, " Maddon said. "What he brings is so refreshing in a good way."

But that's the way Pena is despite a career that began as a first-round draft pick and has led him to Tampa Bay after stops with five other organizations.

Pena's family waited nine years for a visa to come to the United States from the Dominican Republic, trading in a comfortable life in Santo Domingo to move into a cramped two-bedroom apartment Pena shared with his parents, two brothers and a sister in Haverhill, Mass.

"Nothing in my life, ever since I came here from the Dominican Republic, has come easy, " Pena said. "When I was little, my brothers, my sister, my mom and dad, we lived in a very, very humble apartment. I remember how happy we were at that moment, with nothing, absolutely nothing. So how in the world will I be upset or mad or ungrateful of all of these blessings that have landed upon me."

Pena signed a minor-league contract with the Rays in the offseason and was one of the final players cut this spring. But when designated hitter/first baseman Greg Norton needed right knee surgery, Pena, a left-handed power-hitting first baseman, was the easy choice.

Pena, who has started 19 games at first base, has shown the power he has always been known for but is still searching for consistency. Five of his 14 hits are homers. Entering Sunday's 2-for-3 performance, he had two hits in his past 25 at-bats. He still struggles with strikeouts; his 20 in 65 at-bats are near his career pace of one every 3.5 at bats.

"He's the kind of guy you want to build around, " Maddon said. "I'm a developer at heart and I've seen this guy for years, and you see all the ability there. I believe it's going to click and you just want to be the steward when it clicks."

And Pena believes this is the place he can develop into that player. Hitting coach Steve Henderson has worked with him to focus on hitting more line drives and going with pitches instead of having to pull the ball. Maddon has preached consistency.

"It's kind of knowing that the RBIs are going to be there and becoming a master of your emotions, " said Pena, who has 15 RBIs. "I know in my heart that 2007 is probably going to be the best year of my career. That's what I feel. That's what I envision. I just look around and I know that. There's something special about this place."

Maddon holds Pena in even higher regard as a teammate. He has noticed that when he's not in the lineup, he's talking to teammates about hitting and baseball. Pena admits to reading the team's media guide to learn more about each of his teammates.

Soon, Norton - now on a rehab assignment at Double-A Montgomery - will be back, which will leave the Rays with a tough decision regarding Pena. Maddon said he wouldn't be opposed to having Norton and Pena on the roster, despite the fact that they are essentially the same player.

"I'm here today, " Pena said. "I'm a part of this team. I live totally in the present. I'm a major-league player and I know that in my heart. I'm extremely grateful to have the uniform on. I don't look past that. I don't toss scenarios out."