There are times when you’re watching sports and it stops being simple entertainment. The line between ordinary and extraordinary starts to blur, and viewers of all ages and interest levels realize that they’re watching something special.
That tends to happen in big events, like the World Series or Super Bowl or World Cup, where the circumstances inherently create more memorable or more important plays. But all that sports really are, on a very basic level, are a series of connected individual accomplishments. The players are working together, but each one is also doing their own thing, hoping to become one of those extraordinary people that transcends box scores.
Jeremy Pena is not becoming one of those people, he already is one.
The Astros’ shortstop hit 22 home runs during the regular season and displayed enough mettle on defense to win a Gold Glove. He slugged an impressive .426, roped 20 doubles and anchored the infield on a team that won 106 games. And he did that all as a rookie, who, entering the 2021 season, had never played a game above High-A.
But Pena is also not without flaws. He has a very tenuous grasp on the strike zone. Pena had the lowest on-base percentage of any qualified hitter with a .250 batting average. Only three qualified hitters swung at a higher percentage of pitches outside the strike zone, and only three walked less frequently than he did. If he wasn’t given a pitch to hit, he probably also wasn’t going to figure out how to reach base. In other words, he could be made to look like a rookie at times, and the low on-base percentage is one reason why he’ll finish second to Julio Rodriguez in Rookie of the Year voting rather than taking the award home.
During the postseason — his first, mind you — Pena has drawn a walk in merely two of his 57 plate appearances, right in line with his 3.9% walk rate during the regular season. While his plate discipline remains remedial at best, and it still didn’t lead to a walk in Thursday’s Game 5, it did set up the biggest hit of his career, and perhaps of the entire 2022 season.
With one out in the fourth inning and Yordan Alvarez on deck, carrying a hook for Phillies’ starter Noah Syndergaard no matter what, Pena made sure that Syndergaard would leave unhappy. After getting two quick strikes, Syndergaard snapped a slider on the outside part of the plate. Pena fouled it off. The next pitch was the same idea, and perhaps even a better pitch, but Pena watched it wrap around the strike zone for ball one.
With Pena’s mind now on the outer half of the zone, Syndergaard came back with a sinker inside. It was Pitching 101, and Pena showed that he’s accrued enough knowledge during his freshman season to pass the class. He spit on the pitch as it darted a little too low.
The next pitch now belongs to someone who was seated beyond the left field fence at Citizens Bank Park.
Pena tracked Syndergaard’s 2-2 curveball as it popped out of his hand but failed to break beneath the zone, instead hanging thigh-high for the youngster to punish. A lofty 350 feet later, Pena had his first World Series home run, the Astros had the lead, and Pena had another extraordinary postseason moment to add to his highlight reel.
He blasted the home run in Seattle that broke a scoreless tie in the 18th inning and sent Houston to the next round. He batted .353 against the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, bookending it with home runs in the first and final games, and was promptly named the series’ MVP.
Now, he has the Astros a win away from their second World Series title, in the first year after he replaced franchise icon Carlos Correa, no less. Before the home run off Syndergaard, he also drove in the first run of the night in the top of the first. In the eighth inning, he got his hands inside the ball and perfectly placed an opposite field knock with Jose Altuve breaking from first. The single moved Altuve to third and keyed a massive insurance run, as one batter later Yordan Alvarez knocked Altuve in with an RBI groundout.
Pena had three hits and two RBI in Thursday’s thriller. He is now hitting .381 in the World Series with four runs and three extra base hits in five games. He is potentially in line to win MVP of this series as well, which would make him the first American League player to ever win ALCS and World Series MVP in the same year. He is the first rookie shortstop to go yard in the World Series. He is only 25 years old and has yet to even play 162 major league games. He is, as the kids say, him.
If he comes back next season with a better eye at the plate, he may also set his eyes on the 2023 American League MVP.
The story of Games 4 and 5 revolves around the Phillies’ bats taking a very poorly timed nap, but also just how hard the Astros are to kill. Once down 2-1 in this series, which came after a resounding seven-run shutout, the Astros are now right where they want to be thanks to some astounding pitching, great defense, and the babyfaced kid taking the league by storm.
Houston is once again on the verge of a championship, and just like the last time they won in 2017, they have a young shortstop to build their next few seasons around.