Reliever Pena may close out with Braves over new contract


Cherish every moment you spend on the mound this month with Alejandro Pena. If he and the Braves cannot agree on a contract during the off-season, his career in Atlanta will be short-lived.

Pena came into our lives on Aug. 29 when the New York Mets traded him in exchange for reliever Tony Castillo and minor-league pitcher Joe Roa. Since joining the Braves, Pena has converted 12 of 12 save opportunities -- including Thursday's 1-0 playoff win over Pittsburgh -- and he's blended in well with a pitching staff that has only one veteran, Charlie Leibrandt, on its playoff roster.

A 32-year-old native of the Dominican Republic with 11 years' major-league experience, Pena is easily the Braves' most effective closer since Gene Garber in 1982 and Steve Bedrosian in 1983. Strangely, though, more is made of the additions of Terry Pendleton, Sid Bream, Juan Berenguer, Deion Sanders and Otis Nixon than the trade for Pena.

The reason? Pena is quiet. He does not raise his voice or play practical jokes. His locker is the first one on the left when one enters the Braves' clubhouse, and he keeps to himself.

"I never have been a loud person," Pena said after the Braves clinched the NL West title last Saturday. Pe na's career as a relief pitcher began in 1987, his seventh season with the Dodgers. A starting pitcher who won 12 games in 1983 and again in '84, Pena injured his shoulder but has made the most of his reassignment to the bullpen two years later. Used primarily as a set-up man, Pena has 48 saves and an ERA of 2.63 during the last five seasons. The Braves would be wise to re-sign this guy. Bullpen by committee will only take a team so far. These days, closers are as important as 20-game winners.

Pena can still throw his fastball 92 mph, and his slider and curve are not much slower. This is the first time he's been THE man in the bullpen, and his numbers speak for themselves. After giving up two earned runs in his first outing as a Brave, Pena went 2-0 with 11 saves and a 0.51 ERA to complete his 1991 season.

"I like my role here," he said. "And I like to pitch when the game's on the line."

How long has it been since the Braves had a reliever win the monthly Rolaids Relief Man Award? 1987 was the year, the pitcher was Garber. Pena won the award during September after saving eight of eight opportunities.

Braves officials won't -- and can't -- discuss contract matters until the season ends. Pena says he'd like a three-year deal but would listen to a two-year offer.

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