HOUSTON — In discussing the uncommon poise shown by rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña this season, Astros manager Dusty Baker gave credit to his parents and upbringing.
“And the fact he’s the only Dominican dude I know who went to the University of Maine,” Baker said.
Here’s the thing: He almost wasn’t.
Steve Trimper was Maine’s coach in 2014 when he got a call from an old teammate at Eastern Connecticut State, Don Gustafson, to check out a sophomore shortstop at Classical High in Providence.
The Black Bears had a game at Holy Cross a few days later and Trimper took a side trip to see Peña play. The game was snowed out, but Trimper decided to stick around.
“Missed two days of practice and my players were all mad at me,” he said. “But I had come that far.”
The next day, Trimper watched Peña take batting practice and wasn’t overly impressed. But when he took ground balls, the ball went from his glove to his hand in a blur.
“It was magical,” Trimper said. “They play on a public field and the infield is barely raked and Jeremy is making every play. He was probably 5-[foot]-5 and 130 pounds then. But you could see he was a shortstop.”
That started the recruiting process and Peña committed to Maine. He stayed true to that promise after he got older and bigger programs came calling.
“He signed his scholarship. He said he would go to Maine and he did,” Trimper said. “You see what kind of player he is and in my mind he’s an even better person.”
Trimper coached at Maine through Peña’s freshman season before becoming the coach at Stetson. They have stayed close, and Trimper may attend the World Series if the Astros advance.
That’s looking like a good possibility. Houston took a 2-0 ALCS lead with a 3-2 victory against the Yankees on Thursday night. Pena was 1 for 4 and played a flawless shortstop.
The skinny kid at Classical is now 6-foot, 202 pounds, and had 44 extra-base hits during the regular season replacing Carlos Correa as Houston’s shortstop.
The hands are still magical, too. Peña is one of three finalists for a Gold Glove at shortstop.
“A special kid. He’s been doing it for us all year,” Astros ace Justin Verlander said. “It seems like in big spots he comes up. Even when he was struggling a little bit there, for a little bit in the middle of the season, if his number was called in a big at-bat, it seemed like he came through for us.”
Baker was right saying Peña benefited from his upbringing. His father, Gerónimo, played in the majors from 1990–96 and gave his son a love of baseball. Their family moved to Rhode Island when Jeremy was 9.
His mother, Cecilia, stressed education and a sense of responsibility. Astros players and coaches have been impressed with how gracefully Peña has handled his rookie season.
“That’s something I’ve developed over the years,” he said. “I haven’t always been like this. I feel like when you start maturing in this game, you have to keep the same level of level-headedness,
“Good games, bad games, flush it. That’s the beauty of this game.”
Said Baker: “He plays like a veteran, but he is a rookie. He’s quiet and he goes about his business and he just comes to play.”
Peña hit .275 with a .788 OPS through the end of June. As so often happens with rookies, the league adjusts and a slump follows. Peña hit .218 in July and August before cleaning up his swing by getting his front foot down earlier.
“I felt like before I was trying to read the pitch as my leg was in the air. And then when I told myself to swing, then I had to find the ground and then start to swing,” he said.
“Having the foot down early is just eliminating that step and now I have more time to make my decision.”
That led to a strong September. Pena is 8 of 24 with five extra-base hits and five runs scored in Houston’s five playoff games.
“He stepped in some big shoes and played an important role for them,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said.
As Peña raises his profile, Trimper’s cell phone is constantly buzzing with messages from his former players at Maine. That extra night waiting out the snow in Providence led to what will be life-long friendships.
Danny Casals, who played with Peña at Maine, now coaches at Columbus High in Miami. Another Black Bear, Nick Silva, also has been checking in. He played briefly in the minors and now works as an assistant for his uncle, Alex Rodriguez.
“Nick wants us all to get together at the World Series if Houston makes it,” Trimper said. “Danny, Nick, and Jeremy, they’re peas in a pod, good friends. Hopefully it happens.
“We’re all just thrilled for Jeremy. He’s not the only Dominican kid at Maine, you can tell Dusty that. But we’re happy he was there.”