Evan Mendoza had dreamed of playing professional baseball for years, and he was finding whatever means he could to make it a reality.
But throughout this past spring, his junior year at North Carolina State, he was focused on the season and the field — and not on his future. He hadn’t made up his mind what he was going to do when the season ended.
But in the bottom of the ninth inning of the NCAA regional final, with the Wolfpack trailing Kentucky 10-5, Mendoza started to ponder his future.
“I just took the field and looked around and said, ‘Hey, this could be my last college game,’” he recalled.
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Eight days later, his name was called in the 11th round of the Major League Baseball draft by the St. Louis Cardinals. Eight days after that, he was lining a ball to the gap in left-center field for a double at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, his first professional hit in his first pro game.
“That felt great,” the new State College Spikes third baseman said of the seventh-inning hit. “Once it hit the grass and I saw I had a chance for two … it was fun.”
Life can change quickly, especially when it means chasing a dream.
Mendoza got two hits that night, adding a single an inning later and scored two runs. Through four games he has four hits and four runs in 18 at-bats.
He certainly is a far cry from where he was at the end of his freshman season at North Carolina State. At the plate he was 0 for 3, twice hitting into double plays. On the mound he had a 1-1 record with a 6.75 ERA in 18 2/3 innings, with opposing batters hitting .308.
That fall, he was working on his hitting and fielding and was improving in both to the point that he knew it was time to leave the mound. His last pitching experience was an intrasquad scrimmage, and then it was time to bug the Wolfpack coaches to give him a chance in the lineup. They listened. He led the team with a .362 batting average and .417 on-base percentage the next spring, and earned an invitation to play in the prestigious Cape Cod League that summer.
The average dropped to .262 this past spring, but he still had the attention of the scouts.
While the arm may have let Mendoza down on the mound, Spikes manager Joe Kruzel sees the pitching background as a benefit for Mendoza at third base.
“Just watching the way he moves over there, you really like that,” Kruzel said. “Looks like he runs OK and he’s got a good, strong arm. There’s a lot of things to like about him.”
As a pitcher, his fastball may have reached 90 mph on a really good day, and he said his best pitch was a changeup, but he wasn’t sure if his stuff was good enough to survive even at this level of the minors.
While he misses the competitiveness of pitching, he knows he made the right choice.
“I like playing every day,” he said. “I had the opportunity to pitch in college, but I realized there was a good amount of sitting around, relaxing and not so much playing every day and that’s what I love about baseball.”
That love of baseball had him dreaming of pro ball.
Once the college season was done he talked with his family, friends and the N.C. State coaches. He didn’t have a good idea where or when he would be picked — he said his personal motto is to control what he can control — but he was ready for the next step.
He felt at home as soon as his flight touched down in State College. He practiced with the team the weekend before the season began, then watched the first three games from the dugout. He was antsy to get into the action but knew he had to wait, sit and learn.
He also was tutored by his new teammates, those who have been around at least a year, on life in the pros.
“They do a lot more behind the scenes that we don’t see,” Kruzel said. “I take my hat off to those veteran guys, so to speak, that they’re helping those guys and showing them what we expect. It makes the coaching staff less apt to be on them all the time.”
Mendoza was finally in the lineup Thursday against the Batavia Muckdogs, he had his first hit and was already feeling like a pro.
“I was having fun playing the game I love,” he said. “I was having a blast.”