Peña flashing poise as Astros' latest October star

October 20th, 2022

HOUSTON -- Jeremy Peña is a newcomer to the annual postseason gathering in this region that’s extended deep into October for each of the last six years -- but he already looks like a regular among the Astros’ usual suspects, writing his own history each game.

Peña punctuated Houston’s 4-2 win over the Yankees in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Wednesday night with a solo home run off Frankie Montas in the seventh inning, sending a middle-in slider 386 feet into the deepest part of the Crawford Boxes. That, coupled with two more solo blasts from and and a gem from Justin Verlander, set a commanding tone to begin this penultimate round of the postseason.

The breakout rookie has already emerged as a young star in these playoffs, largely as a setup man for a few huge hits by Yordan Alvarez against the Mariners in the Division Series. But in these last two games, including his decisive solo homer during the 18-inning marathon in Seattle on Saturday, it's Peña who's arguably been the club’s biggest offensive hero.

"The goal is to obviously win the game, that's the most important part of it all," Peña said. "So when you get to contribute a little bit and you kind of just take that moment in and have fun with the guys. ... I feel like everyone just roots for each other on this team. That's the chemistry we've built here."

Peña also hit a pair of doubles to finish 3-for-4, becoming just the fifth rookie with three extra-base hits in a postseason game -- the most recent being the very player he replaced, Carlos Correa, who reached that mark in Game 4 of the 2015 ALDS. Peña hasn’t just handled his role in filling the massive void left by Correa with class, he’s also filled the two-time All-Star’s shoes brilliantly.

Correa thrived on the October stage, playing a huge role in the Astros reaching the ALCS in each of the five years before 2022. Yet Peña, who is slashing .350/.381/.800 (1.181 OPS) so far in these playoffs, is also showing that the grandest stage doesn’t seem to be too big.

What allows him to have such poise?

"I’d say the biggest thing is the confidence my teammates give me," Peña said. "They give me so much advice. They just tell me to go out and play. Have fun, play the game hard, do what you've been doing all year. That's what I try to do. I try to stay calm in the moment and compete."

The old tradition of making rookies pay their dues has slowly crept its way out of Major League clubhouses. The newer approach is typically centered on respect and trust, earned by work ethic and talent. It’s largely why younger, more exuberant personalities feel comfortable in their own skin -- and it’s made the game more fun.

That said, while Peña prefers to fly more under the radar, the Astros have fostered an environment where he can be himself, without the pressure of living up to Correa.

"These guys have taken me in since the first day," Peña said. "I've learned so much from them. They show up, put the work in, go out and compete and do it again the next day. I gravitate towards that. That's what I try to do. Just try to keep improving, just keep playing hard.”

Peña’s homer was the last in a collective effort that helped the Astros back Verlander, who coupled with relievers , and to rack up 17 strikeouts to the Yankees’ two.

Gurriel broke a tense 1-1 tie by leading off the sixth inning with a 381-foot blast into the Crawford Boxes that gave Houston its first lead, before McCormick's 386-foot opposite-field rope sailed beyond the home bullpen and over Aaron Judge’s head in right field.

The veteran Gurriel might be on his way out the door, McCormick is on the verge of taking on a more prominent role with the Astros, and Peña seems to be a star in the making. This trio with drastically different trajectories within the Astros organization underscores Houston’s depth -- a key factor behind the club's continued October dominance.