By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
HOUSTON, Aug. 20 -- He was ridiculed and all but run out of Boston, where he flailed at breaking balls and looked at fastballs, and a team in a pennant race couldn't have that. So one Wily Modesto Peña found himself far from a pennant race Monday night, deep in the heart of Texas, something for the Washington Nationals to get excited about.
"The big man?" right fielder Austin Kearns said. "He obviously gives us something we haven't had here."
Red Sox fans must hear the dispatches and wonder how it can be. But a day after homering at RFK Stadium, Peña hit a rocket of a solo shot Monday night at Minute Maid Park, the blast that got the Nationals started on a 7-0 victory over the Houston Astros. That something the Nationals were lacking?
"A presence," Manager Manny Acta said, and Peña announced it by going 3 for 4 and driving in two runs.
More important to the outcome Monday night, and to ending a four-game losing streak, was the performance of right-hander Tim Redding, the former Astro who pitched seven innings without allowing a run and has, improbably, rung up seven quality starts in his nine major league outings this season. Take Redding's ERA at Class AAA Columbus (5.32), cut it in half, and you have something that reasonably approximates his ERA in the majors -- 2.53.
Throw in Dmitri Young's three-run homer that powered a five-run third inning, and the Nationals had everything they needed to pull even with the Florida Marlins for fourth place in the National League East. Still, the buzz in the clubhouse came from No. 16, the man who goes by "Wily Mo."
"It's scary," said Kearns, a teammate of Peña's in Cincinnati. "You used to get caught up watching him take [batting practice], just because you were in awe. But then we used to talk about it. He could hurt somebody."
Such is the style with which Peña can clout homers, stinging rising line drives. Monday night's was a 1-0, inside fastball from struggling Houston starter Jason Jennings, and Peña crushed it to left. It hit high on the wall, just beneath some railroad tracks, to put the Nationals up 1-0.
In Boston, such a shot might be seen as a tease. Even the Nationals know this can be fleeting.
"He has the potential to do that," said shortstop Felipe Lopez, another former teammate with the Reds.
The Nationals are about to find out whether Peña can turn potential into production. In his last 39 games in Boston, a span of 81 at-bats, Peña homered once, hit just .198, slugged just .321, and struck out an incredible 29 times. But he has shed that quickly with a couple of violent swings of the bat with the Nationals.
"It's not just about Boston," Peña said. "I learned a lot of stuff there. But that's all I've been wanting for, for this opportunity to play.
"When you sit on the bench, you're not going to show nobody nothing. When you play every day, it's not the same. Now, you go 0 for 4, and tomorrow, you'll be in the lineup -- versus if you come off the bench one time every week, or one time every two weeks, you have to do something. You have pressure. 'Let me do something to be in the lineup again.' "
Redding may have felt that pressure when he arrived at spring training with the Nationals. The team was holding a casting call for starting pitchers, and though he hadn't made it to the majors since a rocky stint in 2005, Redding took it upon himself to not only make the team, but be an anchor of the staff. Instead, he pitched poorly and ended up in the minors.
"I think he came to spring training just trying to impress everybody to make sure that one of those spots was his," Acta said. "Every outing was like a tryout."
Now, some of the outings are like clinics. Monday, he didn't have the best location of his fastball, but he relied on an effective slider and the double-play ball -- getting one in the first, one in the fifth and another in the sixth. He allowed six singles and three walks, and showed that not only can he win at the major league level, but he can do so without his best stuff.
"Sometimes," Redding said, "it takes a couple of hits before you click on with someone else."
Which is precisely what the Nationals hope they have in Peña. It is, of course, early in his stint here, and the smiles brought on by his homers in consecutive games, something he never did in more than a season-and-a-half in Boston.
But the potential. "One swing of the bat," Young said, and that was shown when -- with one out and runners on second and third in the fifth -- the Astros intentionally walked him.
In his career, Peña has six times as many strikeouts (438) as he does home runs (69). But there are moments like he has had the past two days, moments in which potential and production collide, and it seems like a new home might make a difference.