John McClain: Pena preparing to muscle his way toward an encore performance and help Astros win another World Series

Mandatory Credit: Photo by JASON SZENES/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (13607570aj) Houston Astros batter Jeremy Pena reacts as he circles the bases after hitting a solo home run against the Philadelphia Phillies in the top of the fourth inning of game five of the World Series at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, 03 November 2022. MLB Houston Astros at Philadelphia Phillies, USA – 03 Nov 2022

John McClain: Pena preparing to muscle his way toward an encore performance and help Astros win another World Series

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – After the 2021 season in which they lost the World Series to Atlanta in six games, the Astros let shortstop Carlos Correa leave in free agency and showed amazing confidence in his rookie replacement, Jeremy Pena. That confidence wasn’t shared by skeptical fans and media who’d watched Correa grow from first overall pick in the draft to become one of the best players and leaders in franchise history.

During the season, the 24-year-old Pena did a reasonable impersonation of Correa. In his first season at Minnesota, Correa hit 22 home runs, drove in 64 runs, and had a batting average of .291. Pena also slugged 22 home runs to go with 63 RBIs and a .253 average. Correa slashed .291/.366/.467 with an .834 OPS. Pena was .253/.289/.426 with a .715 OPS.

But it wasn’t the playoff-tested Correa who won a Gold Glove for a second consecutive year. It was Pena. And when the playoffs began, Pena excelled at the plate and in the field. He helped the Astros sweep the Mariners in the American League Division Series and the Yankees in the American League Championship Series and win the World Series in six games over Philadelphia.

Pena was so impressive in the postseason that he was voted Most Valuable Player of the ALCS and the World Series. In 13 games, he had 20 hits, four home runs, eight RBIs, and slashed .345/.367/.638 with a 1.023 OPS. Pena was the first American League player to win those awards in the same year. He was the youngest position player to be named World Series MVP. He also was the first rookie shortstop to win a Gold Glove and hit a home run in the World Series.

Now, nine days into spring training, just about everyone is wondering what does Pena do for an encore? Will he pick up where he left off in the playoffs and become an All-Star like Correa? Will he eventually be even better?

Jose Altuve watched Correa mature into a big-time player in the field and at the plate. He has advice for Pena.

“Just keep being the player he is,” Altuve said. “He had an amazing season. He won a Gold Glove and an ALCS MVP and a World Series MVP. That means a lot for him and for us. He’s going to have a long and great career.”

Pena appreciates the advice from a veteran he’s looked up to, a veteran who’s supported him even before he replaced Correa in the lineup last season.

“Jose has been a mentor of mine since the first day we met,” Pena said. “I’ve learned so much from him and the other guys as well. I feel like I came into an already-great infield. They kept me grounded the whole year. You see how they show up and put the work in every single day. I gravitate toward them.”

Pena is well-grounded with a cool and calm persona. His demeanor never changes. It’s difficult to tell if he hit a home run in the World Series or struck out with the bases loaded because he’s got such a consistent personality. He seems almost embarrassed by the postseason awards and tributes from teammates.

“It was special because we had so many players deserving of the award,” he said about being voted World Series MVP. “(Ryan) Pressly, we don’t talk about enough. He shut the door all year and again in the playoffs. And then Framber (Valdez), he was great all year. He was also great in the playoffs. So it was special to be the one to receive the award, but it could have gone to any of our players.”

At this time last year, the Astros were eager to see what Pena could do in spring training to get ready for his rookie year. Pena was eager, too. He was asked if he’s more confident than a year ago.

“I wouldn’t say confidence has ever been an issue,” Pena said. “I’ve always been confident playing this game. I’d say a little more comfortable with the guys. The focus is the same, to use this time to get ready for the season.

“Last year, I saw it as I’m going to be the shortstop of the Houston Astros, and I’m going to be playing with all these guys. The goal was to just come in, do my job and win games. It was special. These guys were already winners way before I showed up, and I was just happy to be part of it.”

More awards kept coming in for Pena after the World Series. His father, Geronimo Pena, was an infielder with the Cardinals for six years. He moved his family from the Dominican Republic to Providence, R.I., when his son was 9. During a ceremony, papa was quite proud of his son when he received the Key to the City of Providence from the mayor and governor. Then, two weeks before spring training, Reggie Jackson presented Pena with his first “Mr. October Award” during his charity golf tournament at Jim Crane’s Floridian National Golf Club.

“I’m just playing the game I love,” Pena said. “The focus has always been to keep the main thing the main thing, which has been to play the game and accomplish a dream of mine to play in the big leagues. It’s been awesome.

“I want to keep improving and to be consistent on both sides of the game, defense and offense. I was a little more focused (during the offseason). I knew things I had to work on. I wasn’t just working to work. It was actually working on the right things. The goal this year is to put intent behind every practice, behind every single swing and every single rep. The goal is to stay healthy and help the team.”

As part of his routine to stay healthy, Pena spends a lot of time in the weight room. Pictures online show his biceps and triceps, and he’s shy when he’s asked about his muscular frame.

“I just thank my father – good genetics,” he said with a smile.

Pena started lifting weights at the University of Maine and grew from 180 to 200 pounds of muscle. He used the weight room to help him prepare for this season.

“I worked a little more on my body,” he said about the offseason. “Last year, I felt like at the end of the season, I was getting a little tired, so this year, we worked on being more routine-based and knowing what I had to do in-season to stay on top of my game. I’m three pounds heavier.

“The weight room can be a good thing, but you also can go the wrong way. We want to use the weight room to improve and become better athletes and develop better patterns, but we also know we’re baseball players, and the goal isn’t to lift a thousand pounds in the weight room. The goal is to perform on the field, and you always have to keep that in mind.”

Every Astro interviewed by the media is asked about the prospects of repeating as World Series champions. The players know they’re good. They’re brimming with confidence. The goal is to reach the ALCS for the seventh consecutive season and the World Series for the fifth season in succession – then win a third title.

“Everyone’s on the same page,” Pena said. “The mindset is to keep getting better and keep winning games and make it to the playoffs and make a deep run again. We’ve got that mentality here. We have to turn the page. We have a new season coming up. We enjoyed it (World Series) and celebrated it, but we have a new goal to go back and, hopefully, win it again.”

(John McClain writes four columns a week for He can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610. He also can be read three times a week on

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