HOUSTON (AP) — When Jeremy Peña played at the University of Maine, coach Nick Derba was treated to a familiar sight each morning when he arrived on campus.
“He would be on the field every morning running sprints with a tire wrapped around him tied to a yellow piece of twine,” Derba recalled this week. “He’s the only player that I’ve coached in nine years that’s beaten me to work every day.”
Just four years after leaving Maine, Peña helped lead the Houston Astros to the World Series in the shortstop’s rookie season. Next up is Game 1 against the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday night.
“He outworked everyone,” Derba said. “You see a lot of the big leaguers baseball is their source of happiness and is their sanctuary. And I think that Jeremy truly embodied that when he came here, and he lived on the field. He did what he had to do in the classroom, but the reality of it was that baseball was truly his passion and the focal point of his life. And you could tell that.”
Peña hit .253 with 22 homers and 63 RBIs for the AL West champions this year. But the 25-year-old has turned into a breakout postseason star for the mostly veteran Astros.
In Game 1 of the AL Division Series against Seattle, Peña singled with two outs in the ninth to set up Yordan Alvarez’s winning three-run homer in an 8-7 victory. He hit another single in Game 2 before a home run by Alvarez that helped Houston to another win.
But his biggest ALDS moment occurred in Game 3. Neither team had scored before Peña drove a fastball from Penn Murfee into the seats in center in the 18th inning for his first playoff homer in a 1-0 victory, completing the sweep.
That performance in his first postseason series was only a precursor to more playoff success in the second round.
Peña hit two doubles and a solo homer in Game 1 of the ALCS against the New York Yankees. He added a hit in Game 2 and bounced back from a quiet Game 3 with two hits, highlighted by a three-run homer as Houston swept a second straight series.
He ended the ALCS with a .353 average and .824 slugging percentage, winning the MVP award.
Soft-spoken and humble, Peña often deflects attention from himself to focus on the team. Which is exactly what he did minutes after receiving the ALCS MVP trophy.
“Shoutout to my teammates,” he said. “We show up every single day. We stayed true to ourselves all year. We’re a step away from our, the ultimate goal.”
Derba has followed Peña’s career closely and is in contact with him regularly. He called Peña “the team of team guys” and wasn’t surprised that he praised his teammates instead of talking about himself after collecting his hardware after the ALCS.
“I texted him the other night and said: ‘Hey go get a World Series MVP,’” Derba said. “And his candid response was: ‘Let’s go win a World Series.’ It’s never about Jeremy in his mind. And I think that makes it a lot easier to not let the bright lights get you.”
Peña’s emergence this season is just the latest example of how the Astros keep winning year after year despite losing big names. Star outfielder and 2017 World Series MVP George Springer signed with the Blue Jays after the 2020 season and the Astros lost starters Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton after reaching the World Series in 2019.
Houston’s biggest loss this year was two-time All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa, who signed with the Twins. Correa’s departure put Peña in position to take over for the 2015 AL Rookie of the Year and one of the longtime faces of the franchise.
It became apparent almost immediately that Peña would be just fine. It was a development didn’t surprise Derba and the folks back in Maine one bit.
“If you ask anyone that coached Jeremy for long enough or played with Jeremy here in college or in summer league in the Cape, I don’t think anybody would ever sit there and say he wasn’t going to be able to fill the shoes,” Derba said.
Manager Dusty Baker thinks Peña’s smooth transition to the majors was helped by his close relationship with his family, including his father Gerónimo Peña, who played in the majors from 1990-96.
“He has a lot of support from his mom and dad and from his teammates here,” Baker said. “He’s a very confident but humble young man. He’s in a position where, people say it’s hard to win with a young shortstop, catcher, and center fielder and young pitching staff, but he’s grasped the situation, the responsibility of that.”
Peña agreed and said he inherited his work ethic from his family.
“This is something that originated in my house,” he said. “I always felt like I never had to leave my house to find role models because I had my parents who came from nothing in the Dominican Republic and they always taught us the value of hard work and discipline. So that’s something I have taken with me everywhere I’ve gone.”
All the way to the World Series.