Friday, April 6, 2012

He has returned

Pena lifts Rays over Yanks in high-powered home opener.

Posted By on Fri, Apr 6, 2012 at 8:05 PM

HE'S BACK: The <em>real</em> Carlos Pena has shown up.
  • HE'S BACK: The real Carlos Pena has shown up.

The unspoken question lurked around Tampa Bay area water coolers, backyard barbecues and Tropicana Field. Which Carlos Pena would step up to the plate for the Tampa Bay Rays on opening day against the New York Yankees? Would it be the power-hitting fan favorite or the strikeout king whose fanning helps keep the Trop at a nice, cool 72 degrees?

That question was answered emphatically with two swings and two rather audible CRACKS of bat-on-ball action.

“This is great,” said Pena, after driving in 5 runs on the day. “I am so grateful for a day like today. I’m happy to get the win, but to get it in such a way is something that I’ll never forget.”

I am slightly vindicated for writing this on the Pena homeruns vs. strikeouts dichotomy, hereinafter referred to as power vs. pfft… After getting a louder ovation than Evan Longoria—what?!—the returning fan fave cranked a two-out grand slam in his first plate appearance back in a Rays uniform—the first GS C.C. Sabathia has ever yielded to a lefty.

CRACK!

I think Carlos had read my blog. I don't think he liked it; that 3-2 pitch was probably supposed to be my head. The Rays went up 4-0 in the opening frame and I felt like a schmuck.

Clearly hitting wasn't going to be a problem that carried over from spring training.

"How about the difference between a spring training game and a regular season game," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "From the very first inning that thing felt like you’re in the middle of the season, you’re heading into October. That’s a tribute to both teams, I think, the fact that [the Yankees] played it the way they did and the way our guys responded… what a beautiful first game."

The Yankees took a 6-4 lead and ‘Los followed up that big first plate appearance by going down swinging for the first and second times of the season, stranding runners in scoring position both times. A smirk slowly grew on my face; he would prove me right by night’s end.

By the bottom of the eighth, New York had a slim 6-5 lead and Sean Rodriguez was aboard after a leadoff walk. Pena kicked dirt in my face and moved Rodriguez to third with a base hit. My smirk shrank, and this time, thanks to consecutive strikeouts by pinch-hitting Stephen Vogt, Jose Molina and Matt Joyce, Pena found himself as a stranded runner.

New Ray Fernando Rodney put the Yanks out 1-2-3 in the top of the ninth, as Brett Gardner got caught looking at a called fifth strike. The Rays were masters of their own destiny and were not fated to lose in regulation, as Desmond Jennings’ leadoff single led to the game-tying RBI on a Ben Zobrist triple. Knotted at 6-apiece, New York manager Joe Girardi walked Evan Longoria intentionally; he followed that up by giving Luke Scott a free pass too, loading the bases for Rodriguez with no outs.

It seemed like a lock that the Rays would find a way to win this one.

Rodriguez struck out.

Pena stepped to the plate. That palpable question came back up: which Carlos Pena is this? The first pitch from legendary closer Mariano Rivera? Called strike. Next pitch? Big whiff. Was Girardi’s strategy/gaffe going to pay off? Would Pena fan again? Have you picked up on my question motif yet?

Pitch. Swing. CRACK! Walkoff.

There’s your answer, Rays fans. The real Carlos Pena is back.

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