ORONO, Maine — To be ranked the fourth-best college shortstop in the country by Baseball America is quite an honor, especially if you play in a lower-tier Division I conference such as America East.
Jeremy Pena is flattered by the accolade, but the slick-fielding University of Maine junior isn’t going to dwell on it.
“It feels good. You kinda just take it and let it out,” said the rangy Pena. “You keep focusing on your game and your team.”
UMaine head coach Nick Derba reached the Class AAA level in the St. Louis Cardinals organization and has seen a lot of outstanding players.
“I think he’s the best defensive shortstop in the country,” Derba said. “I played with nine major league shortstops and he’s as good as any of them.”
The Baseball America story read, “Pena, son of former big league second baseman Geronimo Pena, stands out for his defensive ability. He has an above-average arm, soft hands and fluid infield actions, giving him the tools to stay at shortstop. Though Pena struggled offensively during the summer in the Cape Cod League, he has the tools to develop once he refines his approach at the plate.”
In his first season on the Cape, which uses wooden bats, the 6-foot Pena was chosen for the all-star team last summer. In 36 games for the Chatham Anglers, he hit .228 with three doubles, three home runs and 13 runs batted in. He made eight errors. He was tied for second on the team in homers and runs scored (20).
“It was a great place and you’re playing against the best (college players) in the country,” Pena said. “You’re facing the best pitchers. You see where you’re at against those guys.”
He said he learned a lot from his teammates by chatting about the game.
Pena said adjusting to the wooden bats after using aluminum alloy bats wasn’t a big deal.
“I’ve been playing with wooden bats for a long time. There’s a transition in the first few games but, after that, it’s pretty normal,” said Pena.
Pena is off to a good start this season. He leads the Black Bears with a .297 batting average that ranks ninth in America East.
He leads the team in runs scored (24), hits (33), triples (2) and total bases (52). He is tied for second in homers and doubles.
“He’s one of the best shortstops I’ve ever played with,” said UMaine senior designated hitter-catcher Jonathan Bennett. “The only other one who was as good is Addison Russell.”
Russell is the starting shortstop for the Chicago Cubs.
Pena has made only four errors in 126 chances and has helped turn 13 double plays.
Derba said Pena benefited significantly from his summer in the Cape Cod League.
“He has become more consistent. He’s stronger and faster,” Derba said.
“He’s a terrific player,” said Stony Brook coach Matt Senk, whose team visits Orono for a three-game set this weekend. “He was my preseason pick for player of the year. He was a man among boys in the tournament last year.”
Pena hit .429 during the 2017 America East tournament, leading the Black Bears to a berth in the championship game. He earned a spot on the all-tourney team.
Pena has always been a middle infielder. He became a shortstop, exclusively, when he was 12.
His father Geronimo played 378 games in the majors and was a career .262 hitter. He spent six of those seven seasons with the Cardinals.
“He was also a shortstop but he transitioned into a second baseman,” said Pena, who was an America East All-Rookie team choice in 2016 when he hit .283 with a homer and 15 RBI.
Last season, Pena batted .319 with six homers and 32 RBIs. He also had 13 doubles, four triples and stole nine bases in 10 attempts.
“He is going to keep getting better,” said Derba. “His defensive skills will keep getting better because of age and reps and stuff. He has the work ethic and he has a high baseball IQ.”
This is Pena’s draft year and Derba expects him to be picked near the front end of the draft.
“I told him last year I expect to see him on TV some day,” Derba said.
Pena said he doesn’t feel any additional pressure because of his draft eligibility and high ranking.
“I’ve gotten a lot of advice from a lot of people, especially my family,” said Pena, who was born in the Dominican Republic and attended high school in Providence, Rhode Island. “I’m just going to go out and play my game and let things play out from there.”
Pena is a student of the game and said he watches videos of former and current major leaguers such as Alex Rodriguez, Omar Vizquel and Jose Reyes.
“He is one of the leaders of our team,” said UMaine senior catcher-DH Chris Bec. “He sets an example on and off the field. He has a great work ethic and he is a really talented baseball player.”
“He is a key piece of our offense and he is our leader on defense,” said senior pitcher Justin Courtney.
Pena had a number of scholarship offers coming out of Classical High School in Providence, where he was a cross country runner and track and field athlete in addition to an all-state baseball player.
Providence native and former UMaine catcher Jonathan Salcedo and Salcedo’s brother, Franklin, who coached Pena in AAU baseball, helped steer him to UMaine.
“I liked the coaching staff and the environment. I also liked the school and the facilities,” said Pena.
The Black Bears (8-19) have strung together a four-game winning streak and are 4-2 in the conference.
Pena said the team has “found its groove right now and we could roll from here. It’s exciting to see what we could do.”
UMaine will host the tournament May 23-27 at Mahaney Diamond.
“We had a good run but we did fall short,” said Pena. “We don’t want to repeat that feeling. We’re having the tournament here this year and we see that as an advantage. We’re excited to host the tournament.”
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