Monday, December 11, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Carlos Peña shines in first game back for Tampa Bay Rays

ST. PETERSBURG

Why, hello again.

Man, did the Rays miss you.

With one afternoon, with one game, with the simple act of pulling on the same suit he used to wear, Carlos Peña rekindled his love affair with Tampa Bay on Friday. Peña is back in town, and the good news is he seems to have brought the power back with him.

Ah, what a terrific homecoming this was. Peña had a grand slam against a pitcher who had made him look helpless. He had the winning hit against another who had made him look hopeless. The fans kept standing, and they kept cheering, and it was as if he had never left.

You will never see a finer return than Peña's. He faced three All-Star pitchers, and he got a hit against them all. Even better, he suggested there were moments to come for a team that was mostly powerless for much of last season.

The first baseman salvaged a game the Rays seemed intent on leaving on third base. He made his manager look like a genius despite that wacky eighth inning. He led his team to an exhilarating 7-6 victory over the Yankees.

In the end, it was Peña bounding around the infield, smiling and celebrating and soaking in the moment as his teammates rushed toward to celebrate.

In other words, it looked a lot like Peña's highlights used to look.

When you get down to it, wasn't the point of bringing him home so he could bring others home?

Somewhere in baseball, somewhere in life, someone might have had a better day than Peña had Friday, but it's doubtful. Not when you consider the restart. Not when you measure his moments. Not when you heard the ovations that seemed to come every time Peña's name was announced.

"I'm so grateful," Peña said. "I'll remember this for the rest of my life. It was just … special."

Special? You want to talk special?

For crying out loud, Peña was supposed to hit seventh on Friday. But 40 minutes before the game, manager Joe Manager nudged him up to sixth. Maddon said he had "an epiphany," which sounds a lot better when a player knocks in five runs from his new spot in the order, doesn't it?

That simple move set up Peña in the first inning, when Yankees manager Joe Girardi walked Sean Rodriguez to load the bases so he could get to Peña. And why not? Yankees starter CC Sabathia had gotten Peña out 31 of 35 at-bats, including the last 14 in a row. Peña was hitting only .114 against Sabathia and last year hit only .133 against left-handers. In other words, it wasn't a pretty matchup for the Rays.

Once Peña hit a 3-and-2 pitch over the rightfield wall, however, it looked a little better.

"It was just heavenly," Peña said. "It was a majestic feeling. Words don't do it justice."

Yes, it looked a little familiar. You had seen him trot before. His teammates, too.

"When he circles the bases, there are usually a few things Carlos always does," said teammate Matt Joyce. "First of all, he looks good doing it. He's very graceful. Secondly, he pushes his helmet down when he circles first base. Third, he smiles when he gets to the dugout. It's a beautiful thing when he's on your side."

To many, Peña can be a frustrating player. Over the past five seasons, his home run totals are among the top half-dozen in baseball. But Peña strikes out more than 150 times a season, and he often hits into the shift, and his average suffers.

The Rays, however, lacked muscle a year ago, which is why Peña and Luke Scott replaced Casey Kotchman and Johnny Damon on the roster.

"We got our spirit back with Carlos," said reliever J.P. Howell. "For him to do that is so fitting. You couldn't write it better. He hits the grand slam, and you're pretty much just laughing because there's no one else you could see that happening to but him."

Tough as it was, the grand slam wasn't the most surprising swing of the day. After all, Peña had had four hits against Sabathia, and two of those were homers.

On the other hand, Peña, 33, had never gotten a hit off of Mariano Rivera. Few Rays had. Before Friday, the future Hall of Famer had saved 60 of 61 attempts against the Rays.

"He's the best closer in the history of the world," said Peña, who had faced Rivera 12 times. "I'm aware I hadn't sniffed the ball against him in the past. You know, he's one of those pitchers you come back to the dugout and say, "What was that?' It's one of those things where your eyes don't always tell you the truth. It's that illusion to his ball. You swear the ball is there, and when you swing, it's not there anymore."

This time, it was bouncing against the bottom of the centerfield fence, and Ben Zobrist was trotting home with the winner.

"I felt like I was going to explode," said Peña, who an inning earlier singled against All-Star righty David Robertson. "I felt like a little kid again."

This is what he brings. Power. Energy. Joy. Chemistry. Possibilities. Here in the ditto part of Peña's career, the Rays can take as much of that as possible.

You know, just like the old days.

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