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Carlos Peña's power sets pace for Tampa Bay Rays

ST. PETERSBURG

There are times his bat seems small in his hands. Silent. Sleepy.

He has struggled, he has sputtered, and he has gone through the first half of a season swinging and missing. So far, he has spent 50 days on the wrong side of .200, and he has fallen through the batting order like a rock in water.

He can be a frustrating player to watch, largely because his at-bats contain too much famine and not enough feast. He has struck out more than any hitter in the game. Out of 189 batters who have at least 3.1 plate appearances a game, he is 188th.

And yet, for all the strife and all the strikeouts, there is this:

As the Rays enter the second half of their season, Carlos Peña might own the most important bat in the rack.

They need him. They need his power, and they need his energy. They need him to make the hitters around him more dangerous, and they need him to drive the runners in front of him home. No one in the lineup has more thunder in his bat than Peña.

"If we need one player to turn it around, it's Carlos," manager Joe Maddon said Monday afternoon. "B.J. (Upton) would be a fraction behind.

"When Carlos is hitting, he makes everyone around him better. I really would like to get him back into the middle of the order where we can take advantage of his RBI capability. If he's hitting to the level he's capable of hitting, it just means a lot more runs."

You remember, don't you? When Peña is hitting, it is as if a party breaks out. The music sounds better, the fans sound louder and the scoreboard reads like the directions to the postseason. When Peña hits, everyone hits. When Peña hits, winning doesn't seem quite as difficult.

To be fair, that's true of any power hitter. Replace an out with a homer, and a team is going to score more and win more often.

Few players, however, have made more difference than Peña over the past few seasons. Consider this: In the 14 games in which Peña has hit a home run this year, the Rays are 11-3. That's a winning percentage of .786 (as opposed to a 38-30 record, or .559, when Peña doesn't homer). Last year, the Rays were 26-9 when Peña homered (58-69 when he did not). The year before, they were 20-10 when he homered (77-55 when he didn't).

Over those three years, the Rays have averaged 6.7 runs per game when Peña has hit one out.

"There is something contagious about him," Maddon said.

The translation is easy. If Peña can get hot, he can be a very important player in the Rays' playoff efforts. If he doesn't, the journey will be that much more difficult.

I know, I know. The Rays have spent a lot of time waiting for Peña. At times, it's easy to wonder if his uncertain future is a factor. At times, it's easy to wonder how much the shift, where the defense tries to cover the right side of the field like a leather tarpaulin, has frustrated him. At times, you wonder if he isn't patient enough, and at times, you wonder if he is too patient.

The result? The result is a .198 average and a player who has been dropped to seventh in the order. Seventh? For a guy whose 55 homers over the last two years are the most in the American League? Seventh isn't a slugger's position. Well, not unless it comes with a pitcher's average.

And so the Rays wait. Still. In some ways, Peña has been like a postdated check this season. You hope it will be good in the future, and you hope it will pay off. Because really, what other choice is there?

Peña admits it can be frustrating. The shift, in particular, drives him crazy. Without it, he estimates he would be hitting about .250.

"How many balls have I hit hard over there?" he said. "I'd say about 20. Maybe 25. I'm not trying to pretty it up. But it looks worse than it is. The crude numbers don't tell the whole story."

As it was, June was an improvement with a .256 average and eight homers (after a .120 average in May).

Here's the thing. The Rays don't expect Peña to hit .282, the way he did back in '07. It may be too much to ask him even to hit .247, the way he did in '08. But if Peña can manage the .227 he hit last year, and if the power comes back, he's still a game-changer. Hit it far enough, and people will forgive you for not hitting it often enough.

"What does the shift cost him?" Maddon said. "Twenty-five points? Thirty points? I don't want him to hit soft singles to left if that makes him change his swing and takes away his power. That way, the shift wins. And I don't want the shift to win."

So what does Peña need to do? To Maddon, it starts with being more picky. It starts with accepting a few more walks. It starts with forcing the pitcher to throw you a strike.

After that, maybe a few more balls disappear over a few more walls.

After that, perhaps the winning increases. The applause, too.

Ones that got away

A look at the difference in games where Peña …

Homers Doesn't

2007 20-20, .500 46-76, .377

2008 20-10, .667 77-55, .583

2009 26-9, .743 58-69, .457

2010 11-3, .786 37-30, .552

Carlos Peña's power sets pace for Tampa Bay Rays 07/06/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 6, 2010 1:31am]

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