It’s safe to say that Sal Mendez is enjoying professional baseball these days.
For one, the 24-year-old Mendez is playing for the Down East Wood Ducks of the Class A Carolina League in the Texas Rangers organization, a team that is absolutely dominating the entire league.
At press time, the Ducks own an overall record of 69-33, some 13 games better than the rest of the league. The Ducks won the first half championship and currently lead the standings in the Carolina League’s Southern Division in the second half as well. They are already headed for the postseason and await the championship series foe.
“Right now, we have the second best record in Carolina League history,” Mendez said. “I believe we have the best pitching staff in the league.”
It also helps that for the first time in Mendez’s six-year professional career, he is 100 percent healthy and free of any injury woes. Mendez was even battling injury during his senior year at Weehawken High School in 2013, when he led the surprising Indians to the Ed “Faa” Ford Memorial Hudson County Tournament championship game.
But perhaps more importantly, the left-handed pitcher is in the midst of his best stretch of pro ball.
Mendez currently owns a 6-0 record with a stingy 2.05 earned run average. He is currently the top pitcher in the Carolina League with that 2.05 ERA. Mendez is a full run better than any other hurler in the league.
But over his last five starts, Mendez has been nothing short of brilliant. He has surrendered just three earned runs over those five starts, totaling 28 innings, surrendering just 20 hits, striking out 26 batters and walking only three. Mendez is on a roll that he last saw when he was in high school.
“I was told by my pitching coach [Steve Mintz] that if I wanted to go to a higher level, I couldn’t be a nibbler. I couldn’t get behind batters. I think I’ve been running into aggressive batters who are swinging at my pitch. I think last year, I considered myself a nibbler and it got to me a little. But this year, I’m trying to make a good pitch early in the count.”
Mendez said that he is also using a curveball more now.
“I started throwing the curve ball and it worked wonders,” Mendez said. “I used to be strictly a slider, but now with the curve, I can throw three good pitches [fastball, curveball and change-up] over for strikes and early in the count. I’ve been able to keep people off balance and it has paid dividends.”
Mendez said that he still lives off his change-up.
“The four-seam circle change has always been my bread and butter,” Mendez said. “It’s nice to have other pitches up my sleeve.”
Mendez said that he throws the curveball about “20 times a game.”
“I only started about two weeks ago,” Mendez said. “It really has helped my success and my confidence. In this streak, I’ve also been able to keep the ball in front of my infield, so that has helped.”
Mendez said that having a top-shelf closer like Joe Kuzia has been a blessing.
“Joe is unbelievable,” Mendez said. “He’s from St. John’s. He is the best closer in the league.”
Kuzia has a 3-1 record with a 0.76 ERA and 15 saves in 16 opportunities. Mendez-to-Kuzia has been a lethal combination for the Ducks.
So needless to say, Mendez is having a blast.
“Baseball is a lot more fun when you’re throwing the ball well,” Mendez said. “We’re winning, so that helps. It’s not just me throwing well, it’s the whole pitching staff.”
Mendez has made the transition back to being a starter after being used as a relief pitcher the last few seasons.
“I’ve been a starter all my life,” Mendez said. “But I grew to love the bullpen. There’s an adrenaline rush that happens when you take the mound and the game is on the line. You get the ball and say, ‘Here we go.’ It’s a different state of mind being a starter. It’s like a game of chess. Being a reliever is like a game of checkers. Once I understood that, then everything started going really well.”
But now, having the success as a starter might change Mendez’s mentality, especially if he’s ready to move up to Class AA.
“It’s a nice change of pace,” Mendez said. “I have a decent idea now of how my stuff plays. I feel fresh after I throw. I have five or six days to prepare for my next appearance. I have to figure out how to get a guy out three times a game instead of just once. But I guess I’m doing that.”
It’s definitely hard to argue with the numbers. The statistics, the league standings and Mendez’s standings certainly don’t lie.
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