Former UMaine baseball star lifts the Houston Astros to the World Championship

Houston rookie Jeremy Pena holds the MVP award after the Astros defeated the Yankees in New York Sunday night to win the MLS Championship. John Minchillo/The Associated Press

University of Maine baseball coach Nick Derpa knew early on that Jeremy Peña was a special talent.

“He was the best player on the court almost of all times,” said Derba, who recruited Peña out of high school and coached him for three years before turning professional.

But Derba said it was difficult to expect a former player to achieve the level of success Peña had during the junior season in the major leagues.

On Sunday night, the short, 25-year-old was named the MLS Player of the Year after the Houston Astros swept the New York Yankees in four games. The Astros will host the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 1 of the World Series on Friday night.

“It’s surreal. You dream about these things when you’re a kid,” Peña said on Sunday during a post-match press conference. We show up every day and stay true to ourselves all year long. We are one step away from the end goal.”

As a UMaine player from 2016-18, Peña was named to the America East All-Rookie as a freshman and has been among the team captains in several offensive categories in the last two seasons. Overall, he compiled a batting average of 0.303 for the Black Bears in 163 career games. In his final season, Peña was the only UMaine player to start all 54 games.

“He’s outdone a lot of players,” said Durba, who has been in touch with Peña since the Astros took him over in the 2018 Major League Baseball third round.

Peña’s work ethic and ability to overcome challenges were evident early on. He was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to Providence, Rhode Island, when he was nine years old. His father, Jeronimo Peña, played seven seasons in the major tournaments as a player, but his team did not participate in the playoffs.

Jeremy Peña played baseball, track and cross-country at Classic High School in Providence. After his senior year, he was selected by the Atlanta Braves in the 39th round of the 2015 draft, but did not sign, instead enrolling in UMaine.

“He was the best player on the field of almost all time,” says UMaine coach Jeremy Pena for three seasons, from 2016 to 2018. Photo by Peter Boehner / Photo Courtesy of UMaine Athletics

Despite his talent, Peña was just an ordinary guy who showed up and did what he needed to do in class.

put to work

“Guys like Jeremy Peña are the reason why the sport is so great. They come from ordinary backgrounds, they work hard, they look for a dream and in the end are still good people.” “Hopefully the kids of Maine and New England will watch Jeremy Peña and see what a truly solid and professional player he is.”

Drafted by the Astros, Peña began training at GLG Athletic Performance, a strength and conditioning facility in Cumberland, Rhode Island, started by fitness coach Jason Oldham. Oldham said that while Peña was a front-runner with a lot of fanfare, he was always very humble.

“He’s in the gym and you won’t even realize who he is. He didn’t act like a high end was just drafted,” Oldam said.

Oldham said it wasn’t uncommon to see Peña working with high school and middle school players who saw him as a role model. He would often bring his brother to training and take the globes with his father. He never hesitates to hit balls with people asking for or signing autographs.

Oldham said that during his time in New England, Pena never used his inability to go outside in bad weather as an excuse not to work. He said it was great to watch Peña hold the same work ethic during the junior season in the majors.

“The fact that he can get through the season and put the University of Maine and Rhode Island on the map as places with really good talent is impressive,” Oldham said. “He put himself in a position where he can be now.”

After three seasons in the minor leagues, Peña made his league debut on April 7, uninjured in four strokes. The next day, he had three hits, including his first home run. The 6-foot-1 Peña weighed 180 pounds in college, recording 12 career trips home for the Black Bears. It’s now listed at 202 pounds, which may help explain his strength as a pro.

During the regular season, he hit 0.253 with the Astros, with 22 home points and 63 RBI over 136 games. He also received a Golden Glove final award for his participation in Shortstop.

Peña was better in qualifying, scoring 0.303 by three runs and scoring seven. His home run in the 18th inning of Game 3 of the AL Division Series — the longest-running playoff in baseball history — propelled Houston to a 1-0 victory that eliminated the Seattle Mariners. In the ALCS sweep of the Yankees, Peña had two pigeons and four RBIs while hitting the .353.

Now he’s on the cusp of becoming the first former UMaine player to appear in the World Series since Mike Burdick in 2000.

Houston Astros short Jeremy Pena celebrates after hitting a home run against the Seattle Mariners during the 18th inning of Game 3 of the Major League Series on October 15. Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press

Confident but humble

After the Astros’ win on Sunday, Houston coach Dusty Baker said Peña is a “very confident but humble young man” and he took charge of reaching second in the standings and playing a short cut.

“He wasn’t shy about it and he really embraced it,” Baker told reporters.

When Peña was named player of the year, it was clear that his teammates were delighted. When asked during the post-match press conference about his reaction to their enthusiasm, Peña did not want to speak for himself.

“It says a lot about our team,” he said. “We root for each other. We pick each other up. It’s awesome. We’ve struggled all year to get to this point and it’s special.”

As someone who has always dreamed of being a top player, Peña said he is grateful to be where he is now.

“This is a blessed opportunity,” he said. “We will play this game every day and we will do our best.”

Derpa, who says he gets emotional when he watches Peña’s play, has come to expect most Peña’s comments about baseball to come back to his teammates.

“He might be a reason or a reason for that sometimes, but he considers himself part of the bigger picture. That’s what champions do,” said Derba. “This is Jeremy Peña. This is the man we know and love at Black Bear Nation.”

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