Rays follow Pena's lead to square up series
First baseman calls team meeting, then delivers on the field
ARLINGTON -- Before all this rejuvenation came over the Rays during a joyous weekend in Texas, Carlos Pena called a meeting with his teammates and basically told each one of them to pull any perceived pressure right off of themselves.
The first baseman, who is an emotional leader when he is hitting or slumping, listened to his own message.
Because after a batting average of .196 during the regular season and being relegated to bench duty in Game 2 of this American League Division Series against the Rangers, Pena came out swinging the last two days. In the process, he helped swing the momentum right back in his team's favor and push the series back to Tropicana Field for a winner-take-all Game 5 on Tuesday night.
Coincidentally or not, once Pena started to surge, the Rays followed suit. In the eighth inning of Game 3, his team five outs from elimination, Pena laced a game-tying single. In the ninth, he produced an insurance home run.
Then came Sunday, the Rays again needing a win to see another day. Pena ripped a one-out triple in his first at-bat, putting himself in position to score the game's first run, as second baseman Ian Kinsler made an error on a popup by Matt Joyce. And two innings later, Pena fired off an RBI double in his team's eventual 5-2 win.
In four consecutive at-bats, Pena went single, homer, triple, double. Yes, a unique version of a cycle.
"I didn't even notice that until someone mentioned it to me," Pena said. "It's something that just happens. You never think of it."
To watch Pena after Sunday's game, he could hardly take the smile off of his face.
"It's fun, man. It's a lot of fun," said Pena. "That's what I dreamed of as a kid -- just to be in the postseason and get the big hits. To be able to live the dream, I'm just extremely grateful."
Pena came up with the Rangers, but they were one of four teams that gave up on him before he found the spark in Tampa Bay that kept his career alive in 2007.
So when it seemed the Rays were on the brink after being thoroughly outplayed by Texas in the first two games, Pena was the one who had the right perspective to speak to the team on Friday about how to respond in a time of adversity.
"I think the situation we were in, I thought that it was only fitting to have a gathering and just get together and discuss some things and kind of make a pause and take a breather," Pena said. "Just go back to the basics. Basically, we just reminded ourselves of our humble beginnings. I keep on saying, there are no prima donnas on this ballclub or superstars.
"This is a ballcub of guys that love to play baseball and have gone through many difficulties to get to this point, so all of us appreciate where we're at. That's what we talked about that day, and I thought it was very important to talk about that day -- just the fact that we already won because we're here. It's a victory in itself. We don't have to do anymore but be ourselves. Very important, I thought, to get back to our roots."
Of course, the humble Pena wasn't going to start thumping his chest and saying that his words were the reason his team has rallied back. In truth, his hits have probably meant far more.
"I would never want to take credit for what has gone on the last two days," Pena said. "But this is a ballcub, we all listen to each other. This club, everyone feels comfortable to say whatever they feel like saying because everyone feels part of it. I take pride in saying it. This ballclub is truly a family. You talk about chemistry, that's our biggest asset. That's what we're going to put on the front-line, our chemistry. We're going to play together."
In many ways, the Rays take their cues from Pena.
"He's a team leader," said Joyce. "The guy always has a smile on his face and he's always positive. He could strike out three times and come back the next day and he's laughing and joking. It doesn't say enough about his character and who he is as a person. I'm so happy for him the last two days and what he's done for us."
If not for Pena's unselfish attitude, it might not have been so easy for Rays manager Joe Maddon to keep him on the bench for Game 2 against lefty C.J. Wilson or to drop him down to seventh in Game 3 against Colby Lewis. In Game 4, Pena was back in his customary five-hole.
"We just talk a lot," said Maddon. "Carlos is very much a team-oriented guy, and I talked to him about what I think regarding the matchup on the other side and where I like him. But I thought after yesterday's game, he really needed to hit in the five-hole for [Evan Longoria's] sake. So based on his game yesterday, I really felt if we had hit him seventh today, he would not have seen one good pitch all day. That's why we moved him to the five-hole."
And now it is on to Game 5, where the Rays will attempt to become just the fifth team in 40 tries to come all the way back from a 2-0 deficit in the Division Series.
"I don't know if you read the [bulletin] board -- we're in the now," said Pena.
Now that Pena is hitting again, things are looking very promising for Tampa Bay.