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Rays

Peņa happy to be here despite struggles

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 11:50 AM
ST. PETERSBURG -

It was either a cruel joke or a poorly planned promotion that scheduled Carlos Peña figurine night this late into the worst season of Peña's career.

And Peña didn't even start Wednesday, when the first 10,000 fans through the doors at Tropicana Field received a miniature Peña tapping his helmet while rounding the bases after hitting a home run. He was benched in favor of Luke Scott, who started at first base because with fly-ball pitcher Matt Moore pitching, the chances of a busy night for Scott were not very high.

The promise of Peña being the big thumper in the heart of the order has long since evaporated. He shares time with Jeff Keppinger, who plays first base against left-handed pitchers, and Scott, who gets the occasional start against right-handers on the days Moore or Jeremy Hellickson pitch.

That's where a major league-low .191 batting average, 17 home runs and 51 RBIs will take a fella, even with the ever-patient Joe Maddon filling out the lineup card.

Even with the offense showing signs of life on most nights, the Rays can use even more as they compete for a playoff spot during the final weeks of the season. That Peña, the franchise's all-time leader in home runs who was re-signed in the offseason to give them the pop at first base they lacked in 2011 when Casey Kotchman held the job, is no longer the first and only option can be quite a blow to the ego.

And Peña admits his pride has taken a hit.

"I have a lot of pride as a player and as a man," Peña said, "but there's a point where you have to understand that pride actually is not good thing to carry around."

Instead, Peña said he will lead with his ever-present smile and lean on the optimism that has been the very foundation of a career that turned around in 2007 when he finally found his way into the Rays lineup.

Also, he and hitting coach Derek Shelton are trying to strip the years of adjustments to Peña's swing — both good and bad — in an attempt to find a simpler version of Carlos Peña.

"We're trying to get back to the most basic version of me. The original," Peña said. "I think I would go for the 2007 version, right? That was a pretty good one."

The 2007 Peña reached career highs in home runs (46), RBIs (121), hits (138), runs (99) and walks (103) and was named the American League comeback player of the year.

Peña also helped transform what was then the hapless Devil Rays into the playoff-contending Rays.

"He was a big part of the turnaround," pitcher James Shields said. "We finally had the bat in the middle of the lineup that teams needed to look out for."

Peña thought back to that time in the spring of 2007 when he made the big league roster, but only after a spot opened because Greg Norton injured his knee.

"I appreciate the fact I'm even wearing this uniform," Peña said. "I remember when I was so grateful that I was able to stand and have this uniform on, and it was green back in those days and I wasn't even playing. I was on the bench and I was the happiest man on the earth just because I had a Devil Rays uniform on. At that time, we were the worst team in baseball and here we are as one of the best teams in baseball, and I feel like I'm part of it."

Peña still feels like he's a part of it, even though he's fully aware he hasn't lived up to the promise that came when he rejoined the organization.

"There's all this potentiality in the air," Peña said, "and I would love to see it materialize into everything I envision, which is a wonderful ending for myself and this ball club."

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rmooney@tampatrib.com

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