Friday, March 18, 2011Posted: 8:45 PM
By Patrick Mooney
MESA, Ariz. There are players who can block everything out and break it down like this: See the ball, hit the ball. Carlos Pena is not one of them.
Even two months from his 33rd birthday, Pena can still come across as the engineering student from Northeastern University. There he became a first-round pick of the Texas Rangers, but his career didnt play out like he was some spoiled bonus baby.
Traded to the Oakland As and Detroit Tigers, released by the New York Yankees and a nonfactor for the Boston Red Sox, Pena had to struggle and learn from his mistakes.
Anyone who zooms in on Penas .196 average last year in Tampa Bay misses the overall picture, and not just because his 28 homers and 84 RBI would have led the Cubs in both categories. Hes always had to make adjustments.
So when Pena flew down to Dallas this winter to work with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo someone hes known since coming up through the Rangers system he considered it an investment. There were no major mechanical changes or breakthrough moments just some positive reinforcement.
Sometimes we stray away from the simplest form, Pena said. Thats when the talent can actually express itself without any limitations. Sometimes you can over-think things and it could really damage us in many ways, not only if youre a baseball player, but in anything you do.
Over-thinking things cripples your talent. (Rudy) just wanted to bring things back to basics, keep it as simple as possible, so that way natural talent can go out and blossom.
Flowery language aside, Pena is being paid 10 million this year to drive balls into the seats and onto Sheffield Avenue. By his second Cactus League game as a Cub, the Milwaukee Brewers were already putting the defensive shift on him.
The most harm you can do is to allow things like that to all of a sudden change your approach, Pena said. The moment you start trying to mold yourself to be beat the shift and you start trying to push balls that you should be driving to right-center or hitting up the middle (then) youre taking away from your strength.
You have to be willing to quote-unquote sacrifice a couple of hits here and there for the greater good, for the long haul.
There is a kind of Zen philosophy to Penas explanations, and he certainly didnt obsess over results early this spring, when he went 1-for-14 through his first six games.
After going 3-for-4 during Fridays 14-13 loss to the Cincinnati Reds, he raised his average to .297. It will be interesting to see if teams shade off him, and how he plays the chess game.
The moment that I let that shift get in my mind, Pena said, they have won.
And maybe it is about the journey. Mike Quade briefly crossed paths with Pena in 2002 as the As first-base coach. The manager senses that Pena is in a better place, where most of this becomes second nature.
He was always one of those guys that took a very thoughtful approach to his game, Quade said. Some guys just come out and wing it. He was never (like) that.
Being a scientist isnt the best thing, but (thats not him). It seems like a real constructive approach to what he wants to get accomplished.
Pena remembers his brief time as a Red Sox near the end of the 2006 season. Joe Maddon his future manager in Tampa Bay brought the shift to the American League East as a tactic to mess with David Ortiz.
(Ortiz) just hit a bullet into right field, right at the second baseman, Pena recalled. Im like: Dude, thats not fair. He (goes): Dont worry about it, youll get it one day. And sure enough, a couple years later, I have like 40 people playing in right.
Now Pena is the established All-Star, the clubhouse leader Carlos Zambrano calls a great guy. Pena didnt have to completely overhaul his game. The .196 label is nothing compared to where hes been.
Theres no feeling your way through it, Pena said. I dont feel like I have a distance to travel to where I want to get.
PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.