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Tampa Bay Rays benching Carlos Peña is for the greater good

Carlos Peña is hitting .152 since July 30. Worse, he has four home runs and 13 RBIs in his past 33 games.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Carlos Peña is hitting .152 since July 30. Worse, he has four home runs and 13 RBIs in his past 33 games.

NEW YORK

And so the Rays have taken Carlos Peña out of the lineup for a couple of games for his own good.

Nothing wrong with a decision like that. When a player is this messed up at the plate, a mental break can be just what is needed.

Except if it doesn't work, then the Rays must decide whether continuing to sit Peña is also what's best for the team.

Yes, the situation has grown that dire for Tampa Bay's all-time home run leader. His slump has been long, relentless and miserable. He is not hitting for average, and he is not hitting for power. There are some days when he is not hitting the ball at all.

"It's obvious the season I'm having is not the one I want to be having. But that's what it is," Peña said. "So what am I doing? I am going to embrace the fact that I have been able to endure all of that pain, and I should be stronger right now, and it's building for the future. That's the way I'm thinking right now. It might be fantasy to people, even to you. But that's the way I view things."

Fantasy or not, the reality is Peña is hitting .152 since July 30. Worse, he has four home runs and 13 RBIs in his past 33 games.

He has left a gaping hole in the middle of a lineup that wasn't terribly sturdy in the first place.

Yet, even with numbers as ugly as that, leaving Peña off the lineup card is not a decision that should be made recklessly. First, there is the benefit of his exemplary defense. Next, there is the number of times he is still reaching base on walks.

Mostly, there is the knowledge of what Peña has meant to this franchise. Since 2007 Peña is sixth in the big leagues in home runs with 143. The guys ahead of him are MVPs (Ryan Howard), future Hall of Famers (Albert Pujols) and icons (Alex Rodriguez).

And there is also the memory of Peña rescuing this team during the pennant race of 2008. In two days in August, the Rays lost Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford to injuries. And over the next 40 games, Peña hit .274 with 11 homers and 37 RBIs.

"The thing you have to remember is that when Carlos Peña is going good, there aren't too many guys who can do what he can do," said hitting coach Derek Shelton. "When he is hot, he's one of those players who can carry a team for a long time."

The problem is, we have not seen that Carlos Peña for a while. He started slowly this season, had a strong June and July, and then inexplicably went off the rails again in August.

His strikeouts are high, but that is not unusual for Peña. His walk ratio is also fairly consistent with previous seasons. The one number that sticks out is the high number of ground balls he is hitting. Peña is not paid to hit singles through the infield. His job is to drive the ball out of the park, and his power is lacking because he's not getting enough lift on the ball.

"Part of it is pitch selection. Part of it is his stance and mechanical issues," manager Joe Maddon said. "You're right, he's been on the ground a lot more this year, and I think some of it has to do with his overall approach at the plate."

Peña, 32, said he is reluctant to tweak his swing or stance at this point in the season. He said these games are too important for experimenting and he would rather work his way through the slump with a more positive mental outlook.

And if that's how Peña wants to approach it, that's his prerogative. But he also has to recognize that the Rays cannot afford to waste a spot in the lineup on a home-run hitter who has lost his power.

Dan Johnson may not have Peña's high-end potential, but he is the same type of hitter with more consistency. And if the Rays use Johnson at first base, as they did Wednesday night against the Yankees, it allows them to put John Jaso at designated hitter and get stronger defense at catcher with Dioner Navarro. Other possibilities are moving Ben Zobrist to first base and using Reid Brignac or Sean Rodriguez at second base.

The point is, the Rays have options. And though loyalty is an admirable quality, Maddon has to consider the greater good.

Tampa Bay is a far different team when Peña is going good, and so the Rays need to give him one more opportunity to work out of this slump. But if it doesn't happen, then their lineup choices must be based on today's reality instead of yesterday's nostalgia.

"I try to keep things in perspective and remember that it's really not about me," Peña said. "As much as I would love to have 40 home runs and 100 RBIs and be hitting .280 or .285, it's not happening. Or it hasn't happened. So I have a choice: I can either cry about it and not be here for my teammates and not give 100 percent, or I could suck it up. Wear it. Embrace it as part of my growth.

"There comes a time when you swallow your pride."

If things don't change quickly, that time may be coming soon.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Rays benching Carlos Peña is for the greater good 09/23/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 23, 2010 10:07am]

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