Mendoza making his pitch to stick in rotation

Mendoza making his pitch to stick in rotation

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Just how good did Royals right-hander Luis Mendoza look the other day against Milwaukee? Let's check in with Brewers manager Ron Roenicke.

"That first pitcher, is he in their rotation? Fighting for a spot?" he asked reporters after the game. "He was impressive. Big guy, down in the zone, nice velocity. Boy, he was nice."

That's what comes from racking up seven strikeouts in a dominating 4 2/3-inning performance in last Friday's 9-4 Kansas City victory.

Mendoza is, indeed, an impressive guy. He has a huge smile, a flowing mop of hair, a lot of recent success and a big burning ambition. He'd like to be in the Royals' starting rotation on Opening Day.

So far Mendoza is making great headway. In three starts and three victories, he's given up just one run on five hits in 10 2/3 innings. He's got 11 strikeouts with one walk.

He's jumped right in the midst of the fray for the fourth and fifth starting roles with Danny Duffy, Felipe Paulino, Aaron Crow and Everett Teaford.

Mendoza has ascended rapidly in the ranks of Royals pitchers since a rapid descent in 2010.

Reason for the rise?

"The most important thing is the confidence I've got on the mound," Mendoza said. "For me, it's huge. If I can keep that confidence through all the games, it's going to be good because I know my sinker's moving good. I just need the confidence to throw it for strikes and not try to be too fine. Just throw it, trust it and that's when I get grounders."

Last year Mendoza was named the Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year as Omaha's Storm Chasers won the championship. In 33 games including 18 starts, he posted a league-leading 2.18 ERA with a 12-5 record and, oh yes, two saves.

A little history: Mendoza was acquired for cash from the Texas Rangers just before the 2010 season and was on Kansas City's Opening Day roster. But he got hammered in four relief appearances. He went on the waiver wire, was ignored and accepted an assignment to Omaha where came under the influence of pitching coach Doug Henry.

"The improvement actually started the last year and a half," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "My first year here the angle on his fastball was very flat. He worked really hard at that. He went to Triple-A and we really started to see a vast improvement in him, from the midpoint on. He carried that over to the entirety of last year."

Henry, a longtime reliever who ended his career with the Royals in 2001, remembered that Mendoza was deflated when he reported to Omaha in 2010. Even worse, his pitches were flatter than a pancake. The solution was to get Mendoza on the top of the ball and delivering downhill so that his pitches sank.

"He tried it and didn't like it and went back to his old stuff," Henry recalled. "And then one day, to his credit, he came in and said, 'I'm ready. Let's do this for real.' That was about midseason in 2010. He made the change and he's been at it wholeheartedly since and he became the pitcher he is now. He's given himself a chance to be successful in the big leagues. The ball's sinking, it's not flat over the zone anymore. He's a big horse and he's got the potential to have some fun up there this year."

When Spring Training 2011 began, Yost barely took notice of Mendoza at first. Then he noticed a remarkable difference and the big guy got back on the manager's radar screen. He didn't make the big league roster last year, however, and was sent back to Omaha where he worked in relief and on getting over his disappointment.

"He had a little hiccup when he got sent down last year. I think it was typical -- a guy that has a chance to make the team and gets sent down," Henry said. "He was a little depressed but once he decided, 'This isn't doing me any good,' he went back at it again. Basically, to me he showed his mental toughness by getting over that little hiccup and doing what he did."

Mendoza got his chance to go into the Storm Chasers' rotation when the Royals called up Duffy. He made the most of it.

Among his accomplishments was a no-hitter on July 18 at Memphis -- well, it was a no-hitter for two days. Then the PCL decided that left fielder David Lough's leaping try for a ninth-inning fly ball was not an error, but a double. So Mendoza had a one-hitter but also a 4-0 win.

"The batter hit the ball pretty good. It was a hit," Mendoza said. "I was just happy for the complete game."

Not only was he 12-5 in the regular season, he went 2-0 in the PCL playoffs, then won two September starts after being called up by the Royals. So counting up everything, he was 16-5 with a 2.03 ERA -- pretty fancy stats.

No wonder Mendoza always seems to have that big smile lighting up his face.

"I'm a happy guy. Just to be here means a lot to me," he said.

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.