EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 29, 2013

Haverhill's Pena: 'I would like to play till I'm 40'

Despite playing for Astros, ex-Hillie star stays positive

On Pro Baseball
Christopher Smith

---- — BOSTON — Carlos Pena’s offensive production has declined significantly the past few years.

The Haverhill High and Northeastern product batted just .197 with a .330 on-base percentage, .354 slugging percentage and .684 OPS in 160 games for the Tampa Bay Rays last year.

But he remains the same Carlos Pena ... still positive.

Now with the last-place Houston Astros, he still always has a smile on his face. He still almost always is joking with teammates in the clubhouse. He’s still taking extra swings in the cage before batting practice. He still considers himself more of an older brother to the younger players than a leader.

And Pena, who will turn 35 on May 17, still is confident he can increase the average, power and on-base percentage.

“It’s definitely frustrating,” he said about his stats in recent years. “But it’s part of the journey. It’s part of the battle to be defeated and to get back up again, to be defeated and to get back up again, to be defeated and to get back up again.

“I’ve been knocked down many times,” he added. “I’m not afraid to get knocked down so I show up again. Yeah, punch me again. You want to? Let’s go. To have that type of courage is something I take pride in.”

Pena entered yesterday batting .188 with a .301 OBP, .325 slugging percentage and .626 OPS in his first 80 at-bats.

But with a 2-for-3 day, including a walk in a 6-1 Houston loss to the Red Sox yesterday afternoon here at Fenway Park, the former Haverhill High star increased his average to .205 and his on-base percentage to .320.

He never has consistently batted for a high average. He’s just a career .233 hitter. His value since 2007 has come in his home run production, high on-base percentage and Gold Glove defense at first base.

The on-base percentage and home runs have been in decline though. He averaged 38.7 homers per season from 2007-10. He blasted just 19 long balls in 497 at-bats last year.

Still, Pena thinks he has a lot more left in him and he can be a productive hitter for five or so more years.

“I would like to play till I’m 40,” Pena said. “And I feel capable. So God has granted me health, which is awesome. I feel so healthy. By no means physically do I feel deprived. So as long as God wants me to be out here, I’m going to very gratefully go out there and just do it.”

Pena spent some of this offseason working out with his dad Felipe Pena in Orlando, Fla. Felipe threw batting practice to him and helped with his swing.

“Just to be around my dad, it’s just rewarding,” Pena said. “We visited old times. There really isn’t much more to figure out or reinvent as far as hitting is concerned. It’s about trying to see if you can bring the best in you every single day.”

Reflecting on his career, Pena said he is extremely grateful — and he should be.

Being a successful major leaguer didn’t come easy for the first-round selection who was drafted 10th overall in 1998 by the Texas Rangers.

After mixed results in the majors between 2001-05, he spent 116 games in Triple-A during 2006. That year, the Yankees released him and the Red Sox signed him before they granted him free agency that October.

Then came Tampa Bay where his career was resurrected. We’ve all heard the story before. He finally reached his potential under the tutelage of manager Joe Maddon and the Rays coaching staff.

“It’s been such an unbelievable journey and it’s not over yet,” Pena said. “I look ahead and there’s a big anticipation of good things to come. At the same time, there’s this gratitude of everything I have been able to experience thus far.

“I’m so grateful for it,” he added. “This is a dream come true. Being around these guys, being in this clubhouse, coming to Fenway, playing at Fenway, wearing this uniform, being a big leaguer. I cannot describe to you how much gratitude goes with these words that I’m saying right now. I thank God every single day for it.”

When asked about the decline in his average and his on-base percentage, Pena said he still strives to become a more consistent hitter. And he believes he can become more consistent.

“High average ... that comes with consistency,” Pena said. “I think it comes with how good your misses are more than anything else. When you miss, don’t miss so big. Miss and still have a possibility of getting a hit. That’s stuff that I’m still learning. I feel like every year you try to search for that new concept or this new idea that may take you over the hump or improve on bringing the best of yourself on a more consistent basis.”

Pena said he has thoroughly enjoyed the time he has spent with the Houston Astros, a team filled with inexperienced players.

“From my end, I’m just like a big brother (to the younger players),” Pena said. “I’ve never really taken any leadership role as a title to carry around or a responsibility. I think it’s very natural for me to reach out to my teammates. I’m passionate about forming bonds with people I come to work with every day. It’s very natural for me, if there’s a young guy, whichever way I can help, I’m going to.”

Pena, who won a Gold Glove at first base in 2008, was the designated hitter in only one game for the Rays last year.

This year, has been different. In addition to 14 starts at first base, he has had nine starts at DH.

He said not playing the field every day is strange.

“But again, it’s another challenge that I welcome,” Pena said. “I take pride in my defense so I’m always working on it regardless. If I’m playing (first base) or not, I’m there taking my ground balls, making sure that I’m sharp and then just kind of let it go and see where the opportunities come and then whenever I’m playing first, let’s roll. Let’s enjoy it.”

Follow Eagle-Tribune baseball writer Christopher Smith on Twitter @SmittyonMLB