DES MOINES — Can Carlos Pena sweep in, hit a handful of homers, and deliver a pennant to the Omaha Storm Chasers?
“I hope so,” said both Pena and Omaha manager Mike Jirschele, asked in separate interviews.
Pena, 35, signed a minor league contract with Kansas City earlier this week and was assigned to Class AAA Omaha. He made his debut with the team on Thursday.
He hit an opposite-field, two-run homer in his third plate appearance, providing the only runs in Omaha’s 4-2 loss to Iowa. He was 1 for 3 with a walk.
The veteran slugger hadn’t played since July 20, when he was released by the young and rebuilding Houston Astros.
“I don’t expect a lot out of him for the first couple of days,” Jirschele said. “He hasn’t seen live pitching in a while.”
Of course, there may not be more than just a couple of days left for Omaha if it doesn’t correct its late-season nosedive.
After leading the division by five games with 15 to play on Aug. 18, the Chasers have lost 9 of 11 and are now tied for first place with Memphis. Plus, Memphis has the tiebreaker advantage after winning the season series between the teams.
Now the Chasers return home to Werner Park for a four-game, regular season-ending series with Round Rock, starting with Friday’s 7:05 p.m. game. Because Memphis holds the tiebreaker advantage, Omaha needs to finish with a one-game lead in order to clinch a third straight PCL American Conference North title and playoff trip.
Pena has seen plenty during his major league career, but he said playing in a late-season minor league playoff push is intriguing and not without its own level of pressure.
“You just have to be yourself,” he said. “When you’re yourself, you give yourself a chance to be successful. When you try to do too much, the opposite happens. That’s the beauty of baseball, the ability to control your emotions and your mindset.
“We’re in crunch time here. So how do you detach yourself from the situation and just focus on your approach? That’s the challenge.”
Pena, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound left-handed hitter, has slugged 285 big-league homers with seven teams over 13 seasons. He tied for fifth among major leaguers with 116 homers from 2007 through 2009, and ranked sixth with 172 homers from 2007 to 2011.
“A guy like that, just his presence is going to add to your lineup,” Jirschele said. “He stands up there and you know that at any time he can put one over the wall — or get a big base hit for you.”
Pena’s best season was 2007 with Tampa Bay, when he had career bests of 46 homers, 121 RBIs and a .282 average, finishing ninth in MVP voting in the American League. He was ninth again the following season, hitting .247 with 31 homers and 102 RBIs, and followed that up in 2009 by earning All-Star recognition while hitting 39 homers and driving in 100.
But Pena hit just .227 that season, and .196, .225, .197 and .209 in the seasons since. His career average is .233.
Still, his power is prodigious and Houston added the outgoing veteran to its youthful cast this season. He had eight homers and 25 RBIs when he was let go.
“I really enjoyed it — loved every second of it,” Pena said. “Obviously the team is very young. And they wanted to look at some guys and they needed my spot. When it was over, I was saddened because I made good friends there and loved my time there, but I understand that was what they needed to do.”
He went home to Orlando, spent time with his family, stayed in shape and evaluated a couple of offers that came his way.
Ultimately, he liked what he heard from Kansas City. But he said there has been no promise from the Royals regarding a callup when rosters expand Sept. 1.
“I would never ask that of them,” Pena said. “I just want to come out and play, and then hopefully, if there is a need, I would be able to join them. I’d like to contribute. But I’m mostly grateful for the opportunity to wear this uniform and do what I love.”
And, Pena said, he isn’t done yet.
“I want to play until I’m 40,” he said. “I feel great. I feel like there are good things in the future. Sometimes they say my better years are behind me, but ... I think maybe you haven’t seen anything yet. There’s a lot more fun left to be had.”
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