Relishing In Relief

Pena enjoying his time in the bullpen





Viera, Fla.—When Hassan Pena was a teenager pitching for famed Industriales in his native Cuba, his only way to impress older teammates was by pitching out of the bullpen. He's back in that role at age 24 in the Nationals organization, which is just fine with him.

A starter for his first three-plus minor league seasons, Pena dominated in 10 relief appearances at high Class A Potomac in 2009. He went 2-0, 0.49 in 18 relief innings, striking out 16 and allowing six walks and nine hits while opponents hit .145. In two starts with the P-Nats, he was 0-1, 6.75.

"I like it better (as a reliever), I think," Pena said. "Coming in with the game tied, I like that kind of competition. I feel better."

The 6-foot-2, 210-pound righthander wasn't just referring to an improved mental approach. He actually felt stronger, which is good news for the organization because Pena has excellent stuff when he's healthy.

After the 2008 season, Pena had his second shoulder cleanup surgery. He worked his way back from the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League to low Class A Hagerstown to Potomac, where he had made eight starts the previous year.

"The most effective part for him is that number one, he has courage. And two, he has confidence in all his pitch types," said Triple-A Syracuse manager Trent Jewett, Pena's manager last season at Potomac. "He has strong beliefs in being able to throw his breaking ball for strikes. When he gets behind in the count, he thinks he can get right back into it. On top of that, all his pitches have good shape."

Pena was a 13th-round pick out of Palm Beach (Fla.) CC in 2006, one year after he defected. He throws his fastball 90-94 mph and also has an above-average power curveball and an average changeup.

"When I came from the bullpen, my shoulder was great," said Pena, who signed for $149,500. "My command was better. My velocity was better. Everything was better."

CAPITAL GAINS

• Even with 2009 No. 1 pick Stephen Strasburg's initial destination yet to be determined, the Potomac Nationals advertised a "five-game, $15 million ticket plan" in which fans could decide when they attended based on the expected starting pitchers. The actual ticket packages cost $40-$70.

• Catcher Derek Norris, a nonroster invitee who starred at Hagerstown last year, caught Strasburg in a bullpen session at the beginning of major league spring training. Norris said he was fully recovered after surgery to repair the left hamate bone he broke in instructional league.