I was frustrated beyond belief with Carlos Pena in his final days as a Tiger. He, along with fellow under-achiever Eric Munson, were supposed to be two of the young building blocks around which the Tigers would construct a pennant contender. Each showed potential. But both sagged under the weight of expectations, to the point where I called for the removal of their Tiger stripes, and forthwith.

Munson was gone after the 2004 season, and Pena hung around through most of spring training in 2006, when new manager Jim Leyland had seen enough and released the slugging (at times) first baseman.

Pena’s career looked dead. He hooked up with the Red Sox, but didn’t really get any playing time. Then he ended up with Tampa Bay. Last season, he finally had that breakout season we had been waiting for in Detroit: 46 HR, 121 RBI.

Pena had himself another fine year in Tampa this season, too — and by all accounts his glove was still above average. I didn’t have much to complain about in that area when it came to Pena; I always thought he was a solid first baseman, defensively.

So it’s ironic that it was Pena’s glove that betrayed the Rays last night in the telltale ninth inning of Game 5 of the ALCS.

Most of the blame will be shoved toward rookie 3B Evan Longoria, though.

That’s a shame, because it was Pena who screwed up, really. The play in question was a slow grounder that Kevin Youkilis hit with two out and nobody on base. Longoria raced in, fielded it cleanly, but threw low to Pena. The kind of short-hopped throw that first basemen see all the time. The kind that a 1B knows is low as soon as the thrower releases the ball.

In the many replays that were shown of the play –which started the Red Sox’s game-winning rally — if you looked at Pena’s glove location as the ball skipped toward him, you saw how poorly positioned it was. It was as if Pena wasn’t anticipating a skip at all. He positioned his glove low, scraping the dirt, instead of a few inches higher, in advance of the short hop that he surely must have known was coming. As a result, the ball bounced over Pena’s glove arm, which because of its low positioning wasn’t able to correct itself quick enough to either snare the ball or at least stop it from heading into the stands. Youkilis was awarded second base, and scored on J.D. Drew’s drive to right field. Ballgame.

I don’t pretend to be a baseball expert, but I did play the game as a youth and have followed it for 37 years. And the first time I saw the replay, I caught Pena’s mistake. The play was scored as an infield single, and while some may argue that the hit was being kind to Longoria, the real culprit was Pena. Sometimes a first baseman has to bail his third baseman out. Not every throw is going to be perfect. Especially those made under duress, as Longoria’s was on the Youkilis play.

Carlos Pena is a fine player — now. He still strikes out too much, but his production is finally justifying some of those Ks. But he fouled up the Longoria play last night, and it cost his team the game. Let’s see if he makes up for it in Game 6.

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