ST. PETERSBURG — The 46-home run, 121-RBI breakout performance was the best thing that could have happened to Carlos Pena last year.
And it could be the worst thing for him this season.
A Silver Slugger Award, a clean sweep of AL comeback player of year honors and a $24.125-million, three-year contract later, Pena will now step into the batter's box each night carrying the burden and expectation to do as well, or better.
"I think it's certainly a concern any time a guy has that type of season, they put a lot of pressure on themselves to match it,'' Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "One thing we stressed to Carlos is just to go out and be himself. We've got a very talented group of players around him, and if he goes out and just plays like Carlos Pena and doesn't put added pressure on himself, that the results will be even better."
Teammates are offering the same message. "What he did last year was like one of those dream years," leftfielder Carl Crawford said. "We want to see it again, but we know that's real hard to do. We'd be happy with another solid year to help us win more games."
What matters most is what Pena, 29, chooses to hear.
Rather than saying, as most players would, that he'll ignore last season's performance (which included a .282 average, 103 walks and a 1.038 OPS), Pena readily admits he will draw on it. And with a purpose.
"It will be used as a source of energy and a source of confidence," Pena said. "I can look back and say, it is possible."
And he pledges to take a similar approach, relishing and cherishing each moment, starting with pulling on his uniform, as much as he did last season. He didn't survive the final cut but was added back when Greg Norton was injured and played sparingly through April, but his vision never wavered. Pena reveled in the positive atmosphere created by manager Joe Maddon, discovering the secrets of success on and off the field that had eluded him during six seasons of major-league inconsistency. And it came in the simplest form, by reverting to his childhood pleasure.
"That was the biggest thing,'' Pena said. "I have a choice of what I focus on, so I choose wisely. And what do I choose? Come out and have fun and enjoy the game. Nothing else exists. Just be a kid. …
''I know when I do that I'm giving myself the best chance in the world to keep on doing it and doing it and doing it."
The game, though, is littered with players who thought they knew how to handle the pressures of a breakout season and failed miserably, tumbling back to mediocrity or, worse, becoming known as one-year wonders. Some that tried too hard, some that didn't try hard enough, some that didn't know what to do.
But Pena is different, Maddon said. And in a good way.
"His humility is a big part of why he will continue to be successful," Maddon said. "He didn't run out and do a whole bunch of different things. He has not changed one inch. That successful season is going to motivate him in a positive way. He did not come out of character the way he performed.
"He's the same guy now as he was last year, when he was trying to become part of this. He's a humble man. He's a talented man. He has his priorities in order. His family means a lot to him. For all those reasons, and the fact he is grounded so well, that's why he can do what he did last year."
Veteran Troy Percival said Pena is too good a person for things to go bad. "He's been through a lot of trials and tribulations," Percival said. "He's been up and he's been down. He's had the expectations of superstardom for six, seven, eight years. Now I think he's just playing to his capability and letting himself play."
Pena has no doubts. Or limits. (He'll also have the benefit of B.J. Upton hitting behind him all season; in the 36 games he did last season, Pena hit .333 with 18 homers and 40 RBIs.)
Numbers that would have been considered a solid Pena season, such as a .250 average, 18 homers and 75 RBIs, would now look like a failure, but he isn't exactly worried. "That doesn't happen," Pena said. "I know it's going to be a great year."
"I ask myself, 'Why not be the hitter who hits .300, hits 40 home runs, hits 100 RBIs every single year? Why not?' '' Pena said. "I give myself that possibility. Believe me, I'm not going to sit here and say, 'Oh, no.' That's my vision."
That sounds a lot like last year.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]