Martin Fennelly Columns
Pena proves you can go home again
ST. PETERSBURG - You can go home again. And you can go homer again, with the bags full, no less, your first time up, against one of the best starting pitchers in baseball, who you never hit. And eight innings later you can go win the thing, walk-off and all, off only the greatest closer in baseball history, who you REALLY never hit. Long time, no see -- 'Los time, in fact. Carlos Pena rode the buzz from the roars of a sold-out Tropicana Field on Opening Day from the moment he was introduced before the Rays played the Yankees in a game that seemed to pick up right where 162 left off. Only Pena was back, back at first base, back at the plate, and he made the difference, with three hits, five RBIs and several curtain calls. He hit a grand slam in his first at-bat back. Of course he did. There was a joyous hop to his steps as he rounded first after his game-winning RBI single deep to left-center in the bottom of the ninth to beat Mariano Rivera and New York, 7-6."I felt like I was going to explode," Pena said. "I felt like a kid. I felt like a kid out there." It was an endless game filled with back and forth, with strange and stranger decisions by Rays skipper Joe Maddon and Yankees manager Joe Girardi. Girardi played the first bad hand in the very first inning. That's when he instructed Yankees starter CC Sabathia to walk Rays No. 5 hitter Sean Rodriguez to load the bases for the No. 6 batter, who originally was the No. 7 man _ until Maddon changed things up just before the game. Oh, that Joe. "The first thought that went through my head was 'Nice, they walked me,''' Rodriguez said. "But then after that, I thought ''Los is going to get him,'" Never mind Pena was only 4 for 35 for his career against Sabathia and absolute zero for his previous 14 tries, including 11 strikeouts. What the Yankees didn't factor in was Friday's pregame Welcome Back from Rays fans was still ringing in Pena's ears. "I was just whispering under my breath 'Thank you, thank you,'" he said. "If I didn't feel that, then I wouldn't have had a pulse. I paused for a second to listen to it, to look around and to really breathe it all in." Then he inhaled a 3-2 pitch from Sabathia and no doubted it, one of those old crushed Pena specials, 428 feet, into the right field bleachers, and the Rays led, 4-0. That kind of jump start is just why the Rays brought Pena back. Granted, you get the whole package with Pena, the strikeouts, the slumps, the anemic batting average along with the homers, or even the walks or just the glove. "It's the old outhouse or castle situation sometimes with (Carlos)," Maddon said. With 'Los, it's the good and the bad ... and on Friday the great. The Rays are hoping Pena moments can help offset their sometimes mind-boggling offensive ineptitude, like that horror show in the eighth, fueled in part by some overdone Maddon decisions. Dig: First and third after a Pena single, nobody out, followed by three straight strikeouts, one by rookie Stephen Vogt in his first big-league at-bat (huh?), missed signs and a Jose Molina strikeout on a foul bunt, then Matt Joyce, looking, his fourth strikeout Friday. Oh, those Rays. So they were down, 6-5, heading to the last of the ninth against Rivera, who in his career had, near impossibly, converted 60-of-61 save chances against the Rays. Hey, weren't they down, 7-0, in 162? Desmond Jennings led off with a single. Ben Zobrist tripled to tie it at 6, a large hit. Rivera intentionally walked Evan Longoria, who'd homered earlier, as well as Luke Scott. Girardi pulled a Maddon trick and added a fifth infielder. Rodriguez struck out. Up came Pena, who, naturally, had never ever gotten a hit off Rivera in 11 career at-bats. Rays fans cheered as he dug in, as they had all spring, even as Pena hit .107. "They stayed behind him," Rodriguez said. "They cheered him on and on, like he'd hit four home runs the night before. Even when he came up tonight for his first at-bat, they were screaming at the top of their lungs. And look what he did. That was beautiful." Pena went the other way with Rivera's fourth pitch. It landed in deep left-center. For an instant, it was like 162 had never ended, you know, save for the new faces, including one the Rays know so well. "It's so special being back with these guys," Carlos Pena said. "We've made a lot of memories. Maybe we can make some new ones." Like Friday, for starters.