GJ Rockies second baseman brings joy, excitement to the game every day
Shael Mendoza got a late start on his professional baseball career. He’s apparently making up for lost time.
The Grand Junction Rockies’ second baseman didn’t sign a pro contract until 2016, when he was 19, and spent last season refining his raw skills in the Dominican Summer League.
After extended spring training, he was assigned to Rookie ball, and he’s taken the Pioneer League by storm. Through Saturday night’s game he was hitting .417.
In his second game in the United States, he became the seventh GJ Rockies player to collect five hits, going 5 for 6 in the club’s first victory of the season. In that game, the Rockies had a club-record 23 hits.
He did it again two days later, and after four games was owning pitchers, hitting .706.
“I understood I had a hot start and at some point of the season everything was going to be back to normal,” Mendoza said through Andy Gonzalez, Grand Junction’s development supervisor. “It’s just regular pitching, like anywhere else. You just have to make an adjustment because they’re going to make an adjustment on you. That’s part of the game.”
After that hot start, GJ manager Frank Gonzales noted there was nowhere for Mendoza to go but down in terms of his batting average, but he likes how the young middle infielder has handled himself, especially after a couple of 0-fer games. He went 0 for 4 on June 29 at Ogden, his first hitless night of the season, but came back with one hit the next night.
“It didn’t bother me at all because I knew at some point it was going to go down,” Mendoza said. “That’s just how the game of baseball is. You’re going to fail more than you’re successful. That part did not bother me. I’m just going to do my best every time I go out.”
After a couple of games off, he was hitless in four at-bats on July 3 in the road finale at Orem, which dropped his batting average to .440, causing Gonzales to quip, “What a letdown, he’s not hitting .700, only hitting .400 now or whatever it is. I might have to sit him a couple of nights.”
Gonzales didn’t sit him.
Mendoza, who has become a fan favorite with his energetic style, rewarded the biggest crowd of the season on July 4 with a 4-for-5 performance, including the first home run of his career. A 2-for-4 night on Wednesday, with another home run, put him at .475, third in the league. He hit .272 last year in the DSL with one home run and 19 RBI, using his speed to steal 23 bases.
Gonzalez, who was the manager at Boise last season before taking over as GJ’s development supervisor when Tony Diaz was promoted to coach first base for the big club, said the staff likes the energy Mendoza brings every day.
“This kid, you’ve seen him. He loves what he does and we like what he does. Hopefully he can stay like that and healthy the whole year and keep playing hard. We are not going to say anything to him to stop doing that,” Gonzalez said of how Mendoza will gesture to the dugout after a big hit and play to the crowd.
“Like Frank says, it helps the other guys motivate. They see this guy’s first year out here, why not us? It’s good to see and fun to watch. Hopefully he stays healthy through the year and helps us make the playoffs.”
Mendoza sees his style of play as one more thing he can do to help the Rockies win.
“It’s good to get a base hit and get the team motivated,” he said. “I do that to motivate myself and motivate my team and get fired up. It’s just how I play.”
For most players in Rookie ball, big crowds are a new experience, especially for those from the Dominican Republic.
“The fans,” Mendoza said of what he likes best about playing in the United States. “We don’t play with fans in the DSL. When we come out here and play it excites me and motivates me every time when I come out here and see the fans. It’s a big part of the game.”
Before he was signed by the Rockies, Mendoza was playing in his hometown of San Pedro De Marcoris, Dominican Republic, hoping to get noticed by a Major League Baseball scout.
“He’s a very talented kid,” Gonzalez said. “He’s got some tools. He’s still learning how to play the game and that’s part of the process of being here. He’s shown a lot his first year in the States. He’s very competitive, he enjoys the game and has fun. He’s going to make some mistakes, but that’s part of being a young player. As long as he keeps playing hard, I’ve got nothing bad to say about him.”
Scouts see the raw tools in young Dominican players — and that’s just what they are, raw.
“Most of those kids in the Dominican, I’d say 85 percent don’t know how to play the game,” Gonzalez said. “They spend a year or two years in the Dominican (Summer League) learning how to play.”
Mendoza is still learning, making 10 errors in 88 chances at second base entering Saturday night’s game. He’s also helped turn 10 double plays, with 34 putouts and 44 assists. He gets upset at himself when he makes an error, but he’s learned not to take it to the plate with him the next inning.
In the sixth inning Wednesday, he didn’t get down on a ground ball, letting it scoot between his feet. On the next batter, he chased down a pop fly behind first base, then singled with two out in the bottom of the sixth with Grand Junction down 10-0. Pedro Gonzalez followed with a base hit, and both speedy base runners easily scored on Alan Trejo’s triple to left-center.
In the eighth, Mendoza hit his second home run of the season, a shot to center. As is his style, he raced out of the batter’s box, his helmet flying off, as he sprinted around the bases in a game that was out of reach from the first three innings.
No matter — Mendoza doesn’t have a low gear.
He leads the Pioneer League with 16 stolen bases on a team that leads the league in thefts.
“He had that (joy in extended spring),” Gonzales said. “Once you put him under the lights here, it even went up a notch.”