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For Tampa Bay Rays' Carlos Peña, one little roller raises his spirits

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The measure of a hit should not be limited to its distance. Or even the total number of bases it produces. Sometimes, the true value of a hit can best be found in the misery that preceded it.

Which is why Carlos Peña — easygoing, smile-on-his-face, home run-happy Carlos Peña — is on first base celebrating a ground ball single that slipped under an infielder's glove.

Don't get me wrong, it was a big hit. It drove in the tying run in the eighth inning and was a major factor in Tampa Bay completing a three-game sweep of the Royals on Sunday. But it doesn't really explain the emphatic way Peña slapped his hands together at first base. Not for a guy who is the epitome of grace and decorum. Not for a player leading the league in home runs.

For Peña, that measly ground ball single was the reward for not letting the past two weeks defeat him. Coming into this game, Peña was hitting .120 with three RBIs and 17 strikeouts in his previous 14 games.

"There's a mind game going on that's very seldom expressed or talked about, and it's huge," Peña said. "It's that ability to block everything out to the point that all that exists is this pitch coming right now. No emotions, no anything. All that exists is this pitch that's on its way. And it's tough to do that.

"Regardless of how I feel, I need to stay mentally in the right place even when things aren't going the way I want them to go. Because — you know what? — my team doesn't need that right now. My team doesn't need me to go out there with my batting average on my shoulders. Or the last two weeks on my shoulders. What my team needs is for me to be me. Right now. That means I have to let all that other stuff go, which is not always easy. I'm human, I'm not a robot. So that's why I was so happy. I was happy to stay in the present in that moment."

The situation itself was evidence of just how difficult things have gotten for Peña in July. With one out and Carl Crawford on third base, the Royals chose to pitch around Evan Longoria to face the Rays cleanup hitter. And who could blame them?

Longoria is third in the league in RBIs and Peña, 31, is on pace to set an American League record for strikeouts this season. So, as strategy goes, it made sense to go after Peña when a strikeout was needed to avoid a sacrifice fly and a tie game.

Even in the Rays dugout, there was some question about how to approach the situation. The Royals were in an exaggerated shift for the pull-hitting Peña, which meant the left side of the infield was manned only by third baseman Mark Teahen.

Manager Joe Maddon and bench coach Davey Martinez briefly discussed the idea of having Peña drop a bunt to make sure Crawford got in from third base, but ultimately decided a single run was not worth messing with a slugger's head.

"In spite of his struggles at the plate, he still is a really good team person. A supporter. He's there for everybody. And since he's always there for them, we have to be there for him," Maddon said. "He's been working his butt off, and so I really believe a nice little surge is coming. I really think he's set up for a good second half."

For a player who may have been pressing too much and expanding his strike zone, the weight of that moment may have done him good. Peña said the game situation was so critical that it forced him to ignore his own concerns and focus on the moment.

"This game is not easy. Maybe for some hitters it is, but for me it's not," Peña said. "When I stay within my zone, that's when I'm at my best. Pitchers are trying to make their pitches look like something they're not. That's their job. My job is to recognize that. If I stay in the zone and I don't chase those pitches, then what are they going to do? It's that cat-and-mouse game. That's why I got so excited because he threw me two sliders and I let them go. Two days ago, I might have swung at those."

Perspective is required in the struggles of a player such as Peña. His batting average is certainly unappealing — he's hitting .226 — but that is not the proper barometer of Peña's season. The Rays do not pay Peña to be a .300 hitter. Or even a .280 hitter.

From the time they signed him in 2007, the hope was that Peña would hit around .250 with a lot of power and a high on-base percentage because of the number of walks he draws. And when you consider he leads the AL in home runs (24) and walks (63), he is pretty close to doing his job. The batting average will eventually climb, but Peña mostly needs to cut down on the strikeouts.

"If somebody said, 'Hey Carlos, you're in the top 10 in the league in runs scored, you're tops in walks, you're top 10 in RBI, you lead the league in home runs,' then I'd think, 'Oh, my God, I'm having a pretty good year,' " Peña said. "But there are other things you can focus upon that will make you feel like you're really not playing that well. It's all how you perceive it."

For Tampa Bay Rays' Carlos Peña, one little roller raises his spirits 07/19/09 [Last modified: Monday, July 20, 2009 8:19am]
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