Houston rookie Jeremy Pena holds up the Most Valuable Player trophy after the Astros defeated the Yankees in New York Sunday night to win the American League Championship Series. John Minchillo/Associated Press

University of Maine baseball coach Nick Derba knew early on that Jeremy Peña was a special talent.

“He was the best player on the field at almost all times,” said Derba, who recruited Peña out of high school and coached him for three years before he turned pro.

But Derba said it’s hard to anticipate a former player having the level of success that Peña has achieved during his rookie season in the major leagues.

On Sunday night, the 25-year-old shortstop was named Most Valuable Player of the American League Championship Series after the Houston Astros swept the New York Yankees in four games. The Astros will host the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 1 of the World Series on Friday night.

“It’s surreal. You dream about this stuff when you’re a kid,” Peña said Sunday during a postgame news conference. “Shout out to my teammates. We show up every single day and stayed true to ourselves all year. We’re a step away from the ultimate goal.”

As an infielder at UMaine from 2016-18, Peña was selected to the America East All-Rookie team as a freshman and was among the team’s leaders in several offensive categories in his final two seasons. Overall, he compiled a .303 batting average for the Black Bears in 163 career games. In his final season, Peña was the lone UMaine player to start all 54 games.


“He outworked a lot of guys,” Derba said, who has stayed in touch with Peña since he was taken by the Astros in the third round of the 2018 Major League Baseball draft.

Peña’s work ethic and ability to overcome challenges was evident early on. He was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to Providence, Rhode Island, when he was 9. His father, Geronimo Peña, played seven seasons in the majors as an outfielder, but his teams never made the playoffs.

Jeremy Peña played baseball and ran track and cross-country at Classical High School in Providence. After his senior year, he was selected by the Atlanta Braves in the 39th round of the 2015 draft, but did not sign, enrolling instead at UMaine.

Jeremy Pena was an infielder at the University of Maine for three seasons, from 2016-18. “He was the best player on the field at almost all times,” says UMaine Coach Nick Derba. Peter Buehner photo/Photo Courtesy of UMaine athletics

Despite his talent, Peña was just a normal guy who showed up, did what he needed to do in the classroom.


“Guys like Jeremy Peña are the reason sports are so great. They come from normal backgrounds, they work hard, chase a dream and are still good people in the end,” Derba said. “Hopefully the kids of Maine and New England watch Jeremy Peña and see what a big leaguer and professional really is.”


After he was drafted by the Astros, Peña began training at GLG Athletic Performance, a strength-and-conditioning facility in Cumberland, Rhode Island, started by fitness trainer Jason Oldham. Even though Peña was a top prospect with a lot of buzz, he was always extremely humble, Oldham said.

“He walks into the gym and you’d never even realize who he is. He didn’t act like a big prospect who had just been drafted,” Oldham said.

It wasn’t uncommon to see Peña working out with high school and middle school players who considered him a role model, Oldham said. He often brought his brother in to train and would take ground balls with his dad. He never hesitated to hit balls with people who asked or to sign autographs.

During his time in New England, Peña never used not being able to get outside in bad weather as an excuse to not put in the work, Oldham said. He said it’s been amazing to watch Peña carry that same work ethic through his rookie season in the majors.

“The fact that he’s able to grind out the season and put the University of Maine and Rhode Island on the map as places with really good talent is impressive,” Oldham said. “He put himself in a position to be where he is right now.”

After three seasons in the minor leagues, Peña made his major league debut on April 7, going hitless in four at-bats. The next day, he had three hits, including his first home run. The 6-foot Peña weighed 180 pounds in college, hitting 12 career home runs for the Black Bears. He’s now listed at 202 pounds, which may help explain his power surge as a professional.


During the regular season, he batted .253 for the Astros, with 22 home runs and 63 RBI over 136 games. He also was named a Golden Glove Award finalist for his fielding at shortstop.

Peña has been even better in the playoffs, hitting .303 with three homers and seven runs scored. His home run in the 18th inning of Game 3 of the AL Division Series – tied for the longest playoff game in baseball history – propelled Houston to a 1-0 victory that eliminated the Seattle Mariners. In the ALCS sweep of the Yankees, Peña had two homers and four RBI while batting .353.

Now he’s about to become the first former UMaine player to appear in a World Series since Mike Bordick in 2000.

Houston Astros shortstop Jeremy Pena celebrates after hitting a home run against the Seattle Mariners during the 18th inning of Game 3 of their American League Division Series on Oct. 15. Pena’s home run lifted the Astros to a 1-0 win that clinched the series. Ted S. Warren/Associated Press


After the Astros’ win on Sunday, Houston manager Dusty Baker said Peña is a “very confident but humble young man” who has taken on the responsibility of hitting second in the order and playing shortstop.

“He hasn’t shied away from it and he’s actually embraced it,” Baker told reporters.


When Peña was named MVP, his teammates were clearly thrilled. When asked during the postgame news conference for his reaction to their excitement, Peña didn’t want to talk about himself.

“It says a lot about our team,” he said. “We root for each other. We pick each other up. It’s awesome. We battled all year to get to this point and it’s special.”

As someone who always dreamed of being a big leaguer, Peña said he is grateful to be where he is now.

“This is a blessed opportunity,” he said. “We get to play this game every single day and we’re going to make the best of it.”

Derba, who says he gets emotional when he watches Peña play, has come to expect most of Peña’s comments about baseball to circle back to his teammates.

“He may be a reason or the reason why at times, but he views himself as part of the bigger picture. That’s what champions do,” Derba said. “That’s Jeremy Peña. That’s the guy we in Black Bear Nation know and love.”

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