Jeremy Peña has tough inning defensively

Something was off about Jeremy Peña.

In the second inning of the Houston Astros’ 5-1 home loss Saturday afternoon, Miami Marlins first baseman Jesus Aguilar sent a ground ball directly toward Peña. He never had control of the ball. By the time he gathered himself, Aguilar had reached first base.

It felt like an isolated, strange mistake for the relatively polished rookie. Then came the error that put Nick Fortes on base. All before another ball slipped past Peña and was ruled a single. Fans could do nothing but scratch their heads.

The aftermath? Three botched plays, bases loaded for several at-bats and three runs that the Astros never returned. In an unusual series of events, one defensive inning from Peña — likely the least fruitful of his youthful career — grew glaring by the end of the night.

“Those are the toughest balls,” manager Dusty Baker said. “… When it hits that dirt before, it’s gonna skip, it’s gonna stay down, those are tough plays. And they seem to find you, a lot of times, in a short period of time like they did today in consecutive plays. Those are tough plays for any shortstop.”

After longtime Houston shortstop Carlos Correa signed with the Minnesota Twins back in March, Peña was entrusted with occupying the spot he left behind — a tough task for anyone, and especially a 24-year-old. Second baseman Jose Altuve, who spent seven seasons alongside Correa, has put trust into Peña. He hasn’t wavered from his stance through the rookie’s recent stretch.

“I think they were tough plays,” Altuve said. “That’s baseball. I think he’s playing great. I love the way he’s playing. He’s obviously playing 100 percent, great kid. Tomorrow’s another day.”

The rookie has picked up the pieces as well as anyone his age possibly could, vying for Rookie of the Year honors through the first three months of the season.

Peña’s bat has been among the top half of Houston’s lineup, raising eyebrows as a hitter and playing with poise beyond his years. Now, he sits in his first major league slump. He delivered the Astros’ lone run Saturday on an error, but ultimately went 0-of-4 with two strikeouts. In his last 13 games, Peña is 9-for-48 at the plate with 12 strikeouts. Of the nine hits, only two were for extra bases.

“Of course you want the next one,” Peña said. “You want to help the team. But yeah, it’s just part of the game.”

His second inning full of tough plays just added insult to injury for Peña, who’s been vaunted for his defensive ability. Peña appeared on Saturday worth nine defensive runs saved, per Sports Info Solutions. Only Baltimore’s Jorge Mateo had garnered more. His rare second inning performance turned into a blemish on the scouting report.

“I really just misplayed them,” Peña said. “We learn from that and keep going.”

The shortstop’s poor outing might very well end up an afterthought as the Astros plow through the season, having their way atop the American League West standings. Peña will continue lurking between bases and connecting on timely hits.

Saturday is simply indicative that Peña is young and going through the motions. It would be difficult to scrap together more innings as bad as Saturday’s second for him. But a rookie season spent seen as the young buck lining the void left by a franchise cornerstone for one of baseball’s perennially better clubs is bound to have its humbling moments.

“Relax and play,” Baker said of Peña. “Be as natural as possible. Learn from the situation because it’s gonna pop up again, but once it pops up then you know how to deal with it in the future.”

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