(Photo via Spartan Athletics website, seen here)
On Friday March 9, Joseph Peña got out of bed, went to the USA Baseball National Training Complex at 8am to play Franklin Pierce, and got a base hit on the second pitch of the game. He and his teammates from St. Thomas Aquinas would go on to win the game 14-3. This type of start is typical for Peña, and his numbers are evidence of that fact.
He is currently batting .405 with 25 walks, 25 stolen bases, and has 49 hits on the season. If he gets five more hits this season, a goal easily in reach, he will break the program’s all-time hits record. The more well-known name from St. Thomas Aquinas’s squad is Giovanni Dingcong, but Peña is an integral part of the team who is making a big statement in his final season with the program. What makes Peña so good is his confidence and bat control at the plate.
“He literally can hit at any count,” said Associate Head Baseball Coach Jon Garvey. “We joke about it in the dugout. The pitcher gets two strikes and we’re sitting there going ‘everybody hang onto your seats we’ll be at it for awhile.’ When he strikes out looking it’s like you gotta yell at the umpire because he knows the zone so well it was definitely a ball.” His coaches and teammates call him Joey, and the enthusiastic way Coach Garvey talks about him shows how excellent he is as both a person and athlete.
In fact, he is such a compelling person that he was part of the reason Dingcong came to St. Thomas Aquinas in the first place. The two grew up playing together, have been roommates for four years, and are spending their final season as co-captains. When they were both being recruited, Peña’s decision helped Dingcong finalize his decision to join the program as well.
Their talents play off each other, with Dingcong being more of a power hitter with a higher home run count and slugging percentage than Peña, and Peña having 20 fewer strikeouts and a higher on-base percentage.
“Joey can teach [Giovanni] how to be more of a contact hitter and teach him not to strike out. Gio can teach Joey how to make harder contact,” Coach Garvey explained.
Peña’s goals for this season were improving his double and triple numbers as well as his baserunning. He has 14 doubles, and five triples, evidence that his goals are in reach. In terms of base running, his stolen base count of 25 accounts for a quarter of the team’s 101 stolen bases this season.
The coaches at St. Thomas Aquinas focus on stealing bases as a key skill for their players, but Peña’s awareness of the game makes him one of the best.
“He just knows how to read pitchers, what the count is…the type of pitches that are coming,” said Coach Garvey. “He’s had so much experience. He can look at a pitcher and know he can go on the next pitch.”
Peña’s talent as a player extends further than his talents at the plate or on the bases, his mental game is also unique. Rather than being a player that has highs and lows, Peña’s attitude stays consistent whatever the situation.
“For him it doesn’t matter what’s going on in the game; he has the same personality no matter what,” Coach Garvey said. “He has the same mentality all day and I think that’s what separates him from a lot of people.”
Peña’s level headedness and maturity are what helps him be a good leader and what will help him leave a lasting impact on the program. Aside from baseball, Peña goes to Bible Study every Thursday and works hard in every aspect of his life. Though he isn’t a flashy player he works hard every day, coming in early and leaving late, setting an example for the rest of the team. In fact, according to Coach Garvey they are looking for a replacement shortstop just like him.
“If we had nine of him it would be awesome,” Coach Garvey said. “Younger guys will say, ‘When Peña was here this is how he did things.’ His legacy will last with the guys that played with him.”
As for those guys, they are currently on track to have a successful year with goals of winning their conference championship, moving on to NCAA regionals and trying to make it as far as possible. With Peña and Dingcong as offensive leaders, a pitching squad with an aggregate 3.17 ERA, and lots of postseason experience it’s worth watching to see how far they’ll go.