Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Pena finally flexing muscles

Patience key to outfielder's improvement

By Kevin Kelly
Enquirer staff writer

The sessions are daily spectacles of power and mouth-watering potential. Fans scrambled for outfield seats, and teammates positioned themselves close to the batting cage as the show began Saturday.

wily mo
The Wily Mo file

Age: 22

Height: 6-3

Weight: 215

Bats/throws: Right

Born: Lagunda Salada, Dominican Republic

2004 season: Hitting .267 with seven homers and 21 RBI in 116 at-bats. He has both of the team's grand slams this season. He is hitting .319 (23-for-71) with six homers and 16 RBI in his last 27 games.

2003 season: Hit .218 with five homers and 16 RBI in 165 at-bats (Was on the disabled list from July 5-29).

2002 season: Hit .222 in 18 at-bats with Reds. Hit .255 with 23 doubles, 11 homers and 47 RBI in 388 at-bats with Double-A Chattanooga.

2001 season: Hit .264 with 25 doubles, 26 homers and 113 RBI for Single-A Dayton.

How he got here

• Was signed as a 16-year-old by the New York Mets on July 15, 1998.

• Contract was voided by Major League Baseball on Feb. 26, 1999.

• Was signed as a 17-year-old by the New York Yankees to a five-year, $3.7 million contract through 2003 season on April 5, 1999.

• Was acquired by the Reds in exchange for infielder Drew Henson and outfielder Michael Coleman on March 21, 2001.

• Signed a one-year contract with the Reds on February 27.

First baseman Casey still listed day-to-day

The status of Reds first baseman Sean Casey did not change Monday. Reds medical director Dr. Timothy Kremchek examined and treated Casey's strained right calf. He remains day-to-day.

Casey, who along with Giants outfielder Barry Bonds leads the National League with a .352 batting average, suffered the calf strain in the seventh inning of Sunday's 14-4 loss to the Pirates.

The Reds continue their nine-game homestand tonight against the Mets.

Before Wily Mo Pena finished his pre-game batting practice work, the Reds outfielder launched a fly ball that didn't just clear the center field fence. It sailed over the roof of the Batter's Eye Pavilion.

"I don't think he knows how strong he is," infielder Juan Castro said. "I can only imagine. I think he's probably one of the few guys I've seen during my career that hits the ball with such unbelievable power.

"I don't think I'd want to be playing infield when he's up."

The previous evening, with his team trailing by two runs in the seventh inning, Pena came up and sent a ball 411 feet into the Reds bullpen for a decisive grand slam.

"The big thing for Wily is that he's making the most of the opportunities he's had," Reds manager Dave Miley said after that 6-4 win against the Pirates. "You've got to give the kid credit. He's worked hard."

The 22-year-old Pena commits himself daily to learning its nuances.

But before this season, when injuries to right fielder Austin Kearns created a need in the outfield, the majority of Pena's major-league education came in irregular increments off the Reds bench.

He has started 27 games this season, only 12 fewer than all of 2003 with the Reds, and is batting .267 with seven home runs and 21 RBI in 48 games overall.

"They've let me play more, and you can see a difference from last year to this year," said Pena, who had 165 at-bats in 80 games last season, and has 116 already this year. "Last year I was always sitting the bench. This year they give me more opportunity to play and that's why I feel more comfortable."

Though he has proven to be a needed bat off a thin bench this season, ideally Pena would be developing his raw skills in the minor leagues.

But he is out of options thanks to the five-year $3.7 million major-league contract he signed with the Yankees as a 17-year-old. After being dealt to the Reds in the Drew Henson trade in March 2001, Pena ran out of options by last season. So he couldn't be sent to the minors without being exposed to waivers.

The Reds would have to place Pena, who signed a one-year contract Feb. 27, on waivers again this year - and likely lose him in the process - so he has learned primarily by practicing and watching from the Reds dugout.

"Wily is a kid with a lot of tools," Castro said. "He's got a lot of tools, and now he's developing because he's playing more."

Pena worked daily with Barry Larkin when the shortstop was injured last season, and in the final 27 games of the 2003 season when the starting outfield was on the disabled list, Pena batted .272 with five homers and 12 RBI.

"Barry talked to me every day," Pena said. "He helped me a lot."

He also credits hitting coach Chris Chambliss, third base coach Mark Berry and outfield instructor Ed Napoleon for their attention this year.

Under Chambliss' guidance, Pena is trying to be more patient at the plate. He has 45 strikeouts in 116 at-bats this year.

"When they put me in to pinch-hit last year, if they threw me pitches, I would swing at all of them," said Pena, who struck out 53 times last year. "This year it's different. When I go to home plate they throw me all the pitches they threw me last year, but I try to take a couple of those."

Berry and Napoleon are working with Pena to make fly balls less of an adventure by teaching him, among other things, positioning and what base he should throw to.

"He's doing what he's got to do, and he's taking pride in doing it," Napoleon said. "It's no longer just hit, hit, hit. Now it's 'I want to hit, but I want to do my defensive work, too.'"


E-mail kkelly@enquirer.com

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