Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 4/6/12
ST. PETERSBURG On his first day back on the job, an familiar presence for the Tampa Bay Rays transformed the Trop into the House of Pena. In the end, he couldn't have scripted his homecoming any better than this. After spending the 2011 season with the Chicago Cubs, Carlos Pena the man who helped write his share of happy endings for past Rays teams rewarded his club in storybook fashion for re-signing him this winter as a free agent. Pena blasted a grand slam off New York Yankees ace CC Sabathia in the first inning of Friday afternoon's 2012 season opener. And then, facing legendary closer Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth, he delivered a walk-off hit to deep center to give the Rays a stirring 7-6 victory before a jubilant sellout crowd. Not bad for a player who had struggled this spring training with a .107 batting average and had gotten only four hits in 35 lifetime appearances against Sabathia (a .114 average) before smashing the first home-opener grand slam in team history not to mention the first grand slam Sabathia has ever yielded to a lefty. Not bad for a guy who came into the game 0-for-11 against Rivera with three strikeouts and then bested the stopper who had converted 60 of 61 previous save opportunities against the Rays, including his past 27. Pena wasn't on the roster for Tampa Bay's unforgettable Game 162 from last September, when the Rays came from behind and beat the Yankees with a walk-off 8-7 victory in 12 innings to clinch the AL wild card. But he helped tap a little of that same magic Friday as the Rays picked up where they left off against New York. Call it Game 163. "This is great," he said. "I am so grateful for a day like today. I'm happy to get the win, but to get it in such a way is something that I'll never forget." Pena was initially supposed to bat seventh in the lineup, but was elevated to the sixth hole in what manager Joe Maddon called a "midnight epiphany." Maddon liked the way the veteran first baseman, brought back to provide some much-need power in the lineup, had been swinging the bat recently in spring training despite a lack of hits. And his gut feeling to move Pena up a notch in the order, flip-flopping him with weak-hitting Elliot Johnson, paid off in a big way. "I've been talking about it the last couple of days," Maddon said. "He has his batting stance in order. He's looked good even though he hasn't been getting base hits." Still, Maddon wasn't exactly overjoyed to see Rivera enter the game in the bottom of the ninth with the Yankees holding on to a 6-5 lead, having jumped all over Tampa Bay ace James Shields early (five innings, nine hits and six earned runs). His thoughts at that moment? "Not good," he said. "Especially because you see the 91- and 92-mile-an-hour cutter." But center fielder and leadoff man Desmond Jennings, playing in his first major league Opening Day game, got the show rolling by lashing a hard single up the middle on an 0-2 pitch his second hit of the contest. Then came the crusher courtesy of right fielder Ben Zobrist, who ripped the first pitch he saw deep into the right-center gap. The fleet Jennings scored easily to tie the score 6-6 and Zobrist wound up standing on third base with a triple. That continued his remarkable streak against Rivera 3-for-3 in his career with a double and two triples. "I did not know that going up to the plate," he said. "I wasn't thinking that. When you face Mariano, he's such a quality closer that you just go up there and battle and try to get a good pitch to hit and not miss it when you get it. He gave me a good one." Zobrist shared his to success against Rivera with a smile: "The secret is swing and sometimes you close your eyes and hit it." Yankees manager Joe Girardi responded to his dilemma by intentionally walking the next batter, Evan Longoria, who was already 3-for-3 with a walk and a third-inning homer that had cut the deficit to 6-5. Then Girardi proceeded to put left-handed slugger Luke Scott aboard with another free pass, loading the bases. Next, he took right fielder Nick Swisher out of the game and inserted Eduardo Nunez at third as a fifth infielder, playing for a possible force out at home. Sean Rodriguez was on the verge of walking in the game-winner when he moved to a 3-1 count, but Rivera bore down for the strikeout. And up came Pena. Delighted Rays fans in the crowd of 34,078 roared when he was introduced prior to the game. They gave him a thunderous standing ovation in the first when he hit his eighth career grand slam prompting the 33-year-old to come back out of the dugout for a curtain-call wave. And now they were on their feet again as Pena strode to the plate. Twice before in the game, he had been in position to do some damage following his slam, striking out with runners at first and second in the third inning, and fanning again with runners at first and third in the fifth. Strikeouts, in fact, have always been a familiar sight with Pena, who has fanned 158 times or more in his past four seasons. And Rivera proceeded to put him in a hole with a 1-2 count. But Pena turned on the next pitch and lofted it beyond the reach of center fielder Curtis Granderson, playing on the shallow side. The ball rolled to the wall as Rays players spilled from the dugout to mob Zobrist crossing the plate with the winning run and then racing to engulf Pena between first and second base. "He's the best closer ever in his history of the game we all know that and I'm very well-aware of the fact that I had not sniffed the ball against him in the past," said Pena, who finished the day 3-for-5 withfive RBI. "I say that in fun, because sometimes we can take things too seriously and it can hurt us. I was just trying to be as loose as possible in that situation and get a good pitch to hit. "He has that cutter that's virtually impossible to recognize, because of the way it spins. So to be able to put the bat on the ball and drive it to left-center field and win the ballgame is incredibly special." Pena has sputtered at the plate in recent seasons, batting .227 in 2009 and .196 in 2010 with the Rays and .226 last year with the Cubs. So he was especially pleased to startthis season on a high note offensively. "That's something that I would like for myself to be able to get out of the gate a little bit better, not only this year but for the rest of my career," he said. It couldn't have started better in the first after Sabathia loaded the bases by walking Jennings, yielding a single to Longoria and then intentionally walking Rodriguez with two out to get to Pena. "I definitely was (surprised)," he said. "I was like, Whoa, they are walking Sean Rodriguez to get to me.' After you get past the initial shock, it's time to get down to business and get my mind focused on what I was trying to do, which was get a good pitch and put the barrel on the ball. I was able to do that. It was a long at bat; it went to 3-2, and I got a pitch I was able to (hit). Next thing you know, we're circling the bases." The 4-0 lead on Pena's 428-foot shot, however, quickly vanished. The Yankees tagged Shields with two runs in the second inning and four in the third, with most of the damage coming on Raul Ibanez' three-run homer in the third. After Longoria's homer, the score remained 6-5 until the ninth thanks in part to a fine effort by the Rays' bullpen. Maddon used J.P. Howell, Wade Davis, Burke Badenhop, Jake McGee, Joel Peralta and Fernando Rodney to no hits and no runs on four walks and three strikeouts in the final six innings. That set the stage for the drama in the bottom of the ninth, and a win the Rays truly savored following their 0-6 and 1-8 start last year. "How about the difference between a spring training game and a regular-season game," said Maddon, whose team finished 10-16 this spring. "Wasn't that obvious tonight? From the very first inning, it felt like we were in the middle of the season, heading into October that's tribute to both teams right there. We get on top, they come back, what a beautiful first game." Especially the way it unfolded in the House of Pena.
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