Culture / Sporting Life

We Need to Talk About Jeremy Pena — The Astros’ New Shortstop Just Keeps Raising Expectations Amid the Carlos Correa Replacement Fervor

This Rookie May Be Much More Than Just an Early Cult Figure

BY // 04.23.22

Jeremy Pena is already a fringe social media sensation, a near cult figure in the echo chamber of Astros Twitter. He’s also the guy who hit his first Major League home run while his parents were being interviewed on live TV. He’s even the guy who can juggle — like seriously juggle (the type of juggling circus acts do, minus the sharp swords).

But game by game, Pena keeps showing he is much more than that. The 24-year-old thrust into the unenviable position of taking over Houston’s shortstop position from the departed Carlos Correa just keeps elevating himself.

Pena does it again in Game 13, in a Friday night that ends in a wrenching 4-3 loss to a Toronto Blue Jays squad that is going to be one of the best teams in the American League. Just like the Astros are. The game ends with rookie J.J. Matijevic striking out against Toronto’s elite closer in his first ever MLB at-bat with the tying run at third base in form of a dancing Jose Siri. But it also ends with more people buzzing about Jeremy Pena.

“Beautiful,” Astros ace Justin Verlander says when asked about the plays — and they jumped out, like a unicorn in a supermarket — that Pena made behind him. “I heard a lot about him as a player. Especially his glove and I think he showed that tonight.

“A lot of nice plays behind me. (Second baseman) Aledmys Diaz made another very nice play. But the two that Pena made were pretty special.”

Astros Twitter should be forewarned. They may soon have to share Jeremy Pena with the rest of the world. For this guy is not going to stay just a cult figure for long.

If you’re nervously worrying about a 6-7 start for the Astros — a team that’s made five straight American League Championship Series — in a season that will end with 12 playoff teams, you’re not only missing the bigger picture. You also may be missing the emergence of a new defensive star.

Pena playing this well this early will mean much more in July than any April stumbles. In many ways, discovering that Jeremy Pena is more than capable — and beyond fun — matters more than Lance McCullers Jr. ending up on the 60-day injured list and Jose Altuve having to miss time with hamstring trouble. For one of the biggest questions coming into the season already seems to be getting answered.

The Astros are going to be just fine at shortstop. By Pena.

J.J. Matijevic would have told anyone who asked him this as much months ago. Matijevic played with Jeremy Pena in the minors and, like most guys who play with Pena, quickly realized this was a different cat.

“Special kid,” Matijevic tells PaperCity when I ask about Pena. “I knew he was special from the first time I ever saw him play. He’s going to be superstar one day and everybody knows it.

“Just in the three weeks of the season so far, everyone sees how incredible he is as a player. And most importantly, he’s an incredible person too. And he takes that out onto the field with him.”

Jeremy Pena and Justin Verlander’s Happy Dance

Pena helps out a two-time Cy Young Award winner thrice on this Friday night. In the second inning, Penna goes deep into the hole to snare a Lourdes Gurriel Jr. shot and throws back across his entire body to somehow gun Gurriel out at first. Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t have arms this impressive in his prime.

In the fifth inning, Pena speeds across the infield to scoop up a Raimel Tapia grounder on the other side of second base and throws out the speedy Blue Jays’ leadoff hitter by a step to get Verlander out of a troublesome inning.

In the sixth inning, Pena makes a great diving stab in the grass, hops up as quick as an NBA star’s second jump and throws out Vladimir Guerrero Jr. That’s how you rob the most fearsome hitter in the American League of a hit — and start building a reputation.

Even Justin Verlander’s younger brother Ben couldn’t help but gush over that Pena popper of a play.

That is three plays in the first six innings from Jeremy Pena that would be highlights for any fielder. Even the defensively supreme Carlos Correa.

“Special kid. I knew he was special from the first time I ever saw him play. He’s going to be superstar one day and everybody knows it.” — J.J. Matijevic on Jeremy Pena

Now, no one is saying that Jeremy Pena is the equal of Carlos Correa. Or ever will be the equal of Correa at the plate, in the clubhouse, or even on defense. At least no one of sound baseball mind. Correa is the former No. 1 pick of an entire draft and a proven transformational player.

Jeremy Pena is still a rookie with a scant 13 games of Major League experience. There’s no comparison.

Whether Pena can keep his offensive numbers up is a legitimate question. He’s currently doing better than fine there, hitting .286 with two home runs in 42 at-bats. Of course, Pena did hit 10 home runs in only 30 games with Triple A Sugar Land last season. . . and well, guys like Matijevic believe.

And have since their first look.

“Just how explosive he was,” Matijevic says when I ask what he sticks out from that first time he played with Pena. “How prepared he was. Just everything he did, he did with purpose.

“He’s a gamer. And when he steps on the field, he’s ready to go every time. And it shows.”

It does — and a future Hall of Fame pitcher, the closest thing baseball has to Tom Brady, is already noticing too.

“He made them look easy,” Verlander says of Pena’s dashes of defensive brilliance on this Friday night. “Easier than they were.”

Houston Astros received their AL Championship rings before they faced the Los Angles Angels of Anaheim, Monday,
Houston Astros rookie shortstop Jeremy Pena crossed another milestone off his list with his first home opener. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

There is nothing easy about taking your first MLB at-bat in the bottom of the ninth inning with runners on and the game hanging in the balance. But J.J. Matijevic loved every tense moment.

“I was feeling happiness,” Matijevic tells PaperCity. “And honestly, when I stepped in the box, I was ready for it. As a kid you dream of making your Major League debut and I did it.

“I went up there full of emotions. It was a special moment. But at the end of the day, I was ready for the at-bat.”

Much like Jeremy Pena is more than ready for his closeup. These proven Astros scuffling a bit is not the real big story of April. It’s certainly not going to be a lasting one either.

The kid playing shortstop is.

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