Draft prospect Mendonca leads by example
Behind laid-back demeanor is a driven warrior
Fresno State third baseman Tommy Mendonca is, by anyone's assessment, a pretty laid-back and humble guy.
So when asked his reaction to being named the 2008 College World Series Most Valuable Player, Mendonca's desire to deflect the praise wasn't that surprising.
"To be honest, I really didn't deserve that -- our team did for what we did as a group," said Mendonca, who followed up that postseason by earning Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year honors, hitting .347 with a conference-leading 27 homers, 78 RBIs and a .739 slugging percentage.
"I would break that trophy up and give it to every player and the coaches because we won it as a team, not as one player," said Mendonca.
Mendonca almost got his wish.
During his Bulldogs' unlikely 2008 run, which included starting as the No. 4 seed (out of four teams) in the Long Beach (Calif.) regional tournament, making short work of top-seeded host Arizona State in the Tempe (Ariz.) super-regional and taking the College World Series championship title, it was Mendonca who wielded the timely bat and turned in the highlight reel plays.
Mendonca's College World Series record of four home runs and dazzling glove work left fans and opponents alike speechless and earned him the tournament's MVP award following the Bulldogs' 6-1 win over their fellow Bulldogs of Georgia.
Mendonca got to hold the trophy in his arms for a brief moment on the field at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb., before it was whisked away to be packaged up and sent to Fresno State where it would be put on display for the next year.
"I saw it for two minutes when they presented it to me," recalled Mendonca.
In the meantime, Mendonca continued his regularly scheduled summer baseball plans, joining a Team USA club that headed to Europe and went 25-0 en route to a gold medal at the European World Championships.
While Mendonca was with the team in Europe, the package containing the trophy arrived in Fresno. When it was opened, the statue turned out to be in pieces, snapped off at the base. Rather than give the pieces out to the members of the Fresno State team, the trophy was sent back to the NCAA to be fixed.
For the last several months, it's been in the trophy case at Save Mart Center, the school's indoor arena, for Fresno fans to gaze upon, remembering their team's heroics -- most notably those of the young man whose Bulldogs career is coming to an end.
With the 2009 regional tournament starting this coming weekend, Fresno State is once again seeded No. 4 out of four teams heading into its first-round action on Friday at top-seeded Irvine. The tournament also includes ACC champion Virginia and a San Diego State team led by presumptive No. 1 Draft pick Stephen Strasburg.
But those games will give the scouts on hand one more chance to watch Mendonca, who has been something of a "man of mystery" over the last year.
Before his playoff heroics, Mendonca was known more for a struggling start at the plate, where his 99 strikeouts in 2008 set an NCAA record.
On the other hand, his power potential ranks right at the top of the scout scale, light-tower power that makes it worth getting to the park early to watch him take batting practice.
Despite Mendonca's laid-back southern California demeanor, which some read as nonchalance, this is a guy so gritty that he played through a pair of dislocated fingers during the College World Series.
Mendonca worked closely in 2009 with head coach Mike Batesole when it came to cutting down those strikeouts. He finished with 60 strikeouts in as many games, an impressive improvement.
But with his power and his defense, Mendonca believes its his quiet leadership that may be his biggest contribution to the Bulldogs squad.
"I'm not a vocal guy," Mendonca admitted. "My philosophy is that I'm the guy who relaxes, who reminds the younger guys we don't have to be so tense, because baseball is supposed to be fun. I want to be the guy who can be loose and joke around in the dugout."
It's possible that this self-effacing approach may be misinterpreted by some as a lack of caring, though if you talk to Mendonca nothing seems to be further from the truth.
Overall, Mendonca's game -- its highs and lows -- has scouts intrigued and puzzled.
"He's a tremendous third baseman, he plays it like a hockey goalie, you can't get anything by him and he has great hands," said one NL scout. "He has a ton of strikeouts, but a lot of those are giveaway at-bats, like if there's no one on base it's boring to him. But he's uncanny when it seems to count. It will be interesting to see where he goes in this Draft because there are a fair amount of clubs that are stat-oriented that won't like that. A psychologist would have a tough one to analyze on him."
These extremes in his game have left him in an uncertain place on the Draft board.
"It's unbelievable with all the exposure Fresno State's gotten, [that he hasn't gotten much attention]," said one scout. "But he's getting late play."
And with the possibility -- perhaps, honestly, probability -- that his college career could end this weekend, Mendonca said he truly hasn't even started thinking about what lies ahead for him with June's Draft and beyond.
"When that time comes I'll think about it," Mendonca said. "But right now I'm playing for Fresno State. If I think about it too much I'll stress out and it wouldn't be good for that to happen right now."
In the meantime, Mendonca's MVP trophy continues to shine at the Save Mart Center. And when the season is over and it's time for him to move on, it will be delivered (insured) to the Mendonca home in Turlock, Calif.
"I'll put it somewhere safe," Mendonca said, "where it can't get broken."
By that time, though, it's unlikely Mendonca will be hanging around the house much to admire it, as his name is expected to be called somewhere in the first few rounds on June 9.
"He probably defies every logical thought process of most scouts," the NL scout said. "He's a very, very unique and interesting person. But I like him and I think there is a good spot for him."
MLB.com will offer live coverage and analysis of the entire First-Year Player Draft on June 9-11, on MLB.com/Live, where host Vinny Micucci will be joined by MLB.com Draft expert Jonathan Mayo and Major League Scouting Bureau director Frank Marcos. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on June 9, noon on June 10 and 11:30 a.m. on June 11.
Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.