It's difficult to decide which is the more improbable aspect of Carlos Pena's storybook season. Is it that he went from being a spring training invitee to a sluggers in six months?
Or is it that he is genuinely thrilled to be a player with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the majors' perennial cellar dwellers?
"I am extremely grateful that the Rays have given me an opportunity to play," said Pena, whose 33 homers are second in the American League. "I say with all the confidence in the world, even though our team isn't doing as well as we wanted, I know that in the future great things lie ahead."
Pena, 29, wants to be part of that future. He's arbitration-eligible for the next two seasons, but hopes to sign an extension that would keep him in Tampa through 2009.
Stability is key for the left-handed first baseman, who has played with six organizations, including the Texas Rangers, who drafted him in the first round in 1998.
After playing in 18 games with the Boston Red Sox in 2006, Pena signed a minor league deal with the Devil Rays and made the Opening Day roster because of an injury to Greg Norton. He earned a full-time role and has set career highs in RBIs and homers.
And to think, he said, he was "very, very close" to being an Oriole.
Early in the offseason, the Orioles - wanting him to platoon with Kevin Millar - offered Pena a one-year, major league deal worth between $750,000 and $850,000 with incentives, which Pena initially rejected. Still, he thought a deal was inevitable. But the negotiations dragged and the Orioles eventually signed Aubrey Huff to a three-year, $20 million contract.
"It was like, 'This is going to be cool. I look forward to this,'" Pena said about the Orioles negotiations. "And then [the offer] wasn't there. Obviously, I was very disappointed."
He didn't have a job until weeks before spring training. And now he could be the AL's Comeback Player of the Year on an $800,000 salary.
Former Orioles ace Mike Mussina might have taken his sweet time to address the media after games here, but he wasn't one to duck out completely. That's why his decision to stay away from the New York media for two days after being removed from the Yankees rotation this week speaks volumes about how upset he must have been. He spoke Thursday and apologized for his silence.
"It caught me a little off guard. I was struggling badly, which is probably why I needed a couple of days to simmer down," Mussina said. "Yeah, I was mad. I can admit that. I was mad. I'm still not excited."
Mussina, who is 8-10 with a 5.53 ERA, has allowed 19 earned runs on 25 hits in his past three starts, all losses. He'll miss at least one start. He no longer sounds like the supremely confident pitcher who has won 247 career games, including 147 with the Orioles.
"I hope I don't need a massive change, because I'm old and you can't teach me new tricks," said Mussina, 38, who is signed through 2008. "It's coming to that time when eventually I'm not going to be doing this anymore. And I know that. It's not too far in the future."
The San Diego Padres' Greg Maddux hasn't walked a batter in 42 innings dating to July 28. It's the third-longest walk-free stretch of his career. He had streaks of 72 1/3 innings (2001) and 51 (1995). Maddux has walked 21 batters in 168 2/3 innings. The Orioles' Daniel Cabrera walked 27 in six July starts (36 innings).
Quote of the week
"When that inning started I said, 'Please, God, don't start another one. We don't want to be in the same situation as what happened last time.'"
Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada, on the team allowing 11 runs in the eighth inning to Tampa Bay on Tuesday, less than a week after surrendering 30 runs in a game to Texas.
Boston's Terry Francona was angry when a Major League Baseball representative made him leave the dugout during Wednesday's Yankees-Red Sox game to prove he was wearing his uniform jersey under his Red Sox pullover. Just wait until George Mitchell takes over the investigation. ... The Florida Marlins' Dontrelle Willis has won once in his past 16 starts. ... Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Chris Young is the first National League rookie with 20 stolen bases and 20 homers in a season.
Compiled from interviews and other newspapers' reports.