Carlos Pena limped through the Grapefruit League season and there was some worry within the Tampa Bay market that Pena going to be another big (for this market) contract signing gone awry. Joe Maddon was quick to defend Pena saying he liked where Pena's swing was at despite the numbers and those reviews were quickly verified on opening day when Pena hit a grand slam off CC Sabathia in his first plate appearance and also got the game-winning hit off Mariano Rivera.
Pena went on to have a strong month of April hitting .286/.412/.488 walking 15 times and striking out 27 times in 102 plate appearances. Evan Longoria went to the disabled list on May 1st which meant the Rays would be needing Pena's bat even more but that has not happened in May as Pena has a .138/.275/.224 slash line in 69 plate appearances as play starts tonight walking just four times while striking out 19 times.
Slow starts are nothing new to Pena as his career numbers in April and May are historically his lowest numbers while June tends to be the month that Pena gets his groove back.
While doing the 125 mile haul from my modest abode to Tropicana Field today, two different stories were written about Pena's struggles. Jonathan Mitchell of DRaysBay looked at Pena's spray charts and noted how pull happy Pena has become this month compared to April.
Given the fact teams overshift Pena as often as his own skipper employs the strategy against opposing hitters, it is easy to see why Pena's slash line has plummeted this month as he struggles to hit a ball safey into play through the myriad of defenders to the right side.
Jason Hanselman of The Rays Way took a more analytical approach to Pena's struggles and the images within the article show the peaks and valleys that Pena typically goes through but narrowed down to his most recent 750 plate appearances.
Hanselman goes on to show how Pena's struggles of late are particularly noticeable in his contact rate within the zone and how he's in one his low valleys that he has been in before and then ascends out at the same rate he descended into the struggles.
I asked Joe Maddon about Pena in the media pre-game chat today and Maddon offered a few insights into what is ailing Pena:
"In the beginning of the season he was not missing his pitch and was keeping things fair. He isn't attacking his fastball and keeping it in fair territory. He is still in control of the strike zone but consistent hard contact is an issue but his game typically ebbs and flows like that and we're going to continue to put him out there like that."
The timing of Pena's struggles are unfortunate given the bats that are currently out of this lineup, but better days appear to be ahead and they couldn't come at a better time for the Rays and for Pena.
More updates throughout the game as well as after the game as events happen.
Chipper Jones started his major league career five seasons before the Tampa Bay Devil Rays took the field for the first time. Odds are, a number of Rays fans were at one time Braves fans given the fact TBS has always been a prevalent cable channel in this market. I say this because Jones got a standing ovation before his first plate appearance tonight not from just the fair number of Braves fans in attendance but from the entire crowd.
The interleague intrigue of Jones and his teammates has not translated that much into the attendance as the crowd does not look that much fuller than it was during ballpark event here at Tropicana Field just two weeks ago. This is not meant to be a slight on attendance here as the fan base has stepped up its efforts so far this season. Through the first 18 games of 2012, 71,450 more fans have attended Rays games at Tropicana Field than they did through the first 18 games of last season. That is good for ninth best in baseball and is an average of 3,969 more fans per contest.
Earlier today, I posted a Twitter survey asking people if they approved or disapproved of interleague play and a majority disapproved of the mid-season change-up in the schedule.
It is no secret that the Rays offense has struggled in May with Longoria on the disabled list the entire month and Jennings on it for most of it. The offense has hit just .239/.320/.382 in May after hitting .254/.339/.429 in April. This season, the team has actually been more competitive in low scoring games than they were last season. When scoring three or less runs in 2011, the Rays had a winning percentage of just .200 as they won just 14 of 70 games. This season, the team has won six of 18 contests when scoring three or less runs; a winning percentage of 33 percent. Last season, when the team scored at least four runs, they won 30 percent of their contests while this season, scoring at least four runs has resulted in a Rays victory 46 percent of the time.