KANSAS CITY, Mo. – To fully appreciate the concern that goes through Royals right-hander Luis Mendoza’s mind these days, you have to go back to 2010.
During April of that year, Mendoza seemingly was having his last chance at a big-league career. Boston, San Diego and Texas already had given up on him.
And here he was with Kansas City, having earned a spot in a shaky Royals’ bullpen.
With one final chance to impress a new team, Mendoza completely bombed.
It was painful to watch.
In his first appearance, Mendoza inherited a 2-1 lead against the Tigers. He promptly gave up 5 runs and the Royals lost, 7-3.
Two days later, Mendoza came on in a tight 4-3 game against the Red Sox. Within minutes he had given up three runs and the Royals never recovered in an 8-3 loss.
Finally, a week or so later, Mendoza was tagged for two more runs in another Royals loss. The Royals had little choice but to designate him for assignment shortly thereafter.
In four appearances that spring, Mendoza was hammered for 10 hits, 10 earned runs and four home runs in just four innings.
The Royals could have released him, but they assigned him to Triple-A instead.
“That seems like a long time ago,” Mendoza says now. “I don’t know what I was thinking then. I didn’t know where I might end up. I was concerned that I’d never make it back to the big leagues. I was still confident but I was concerned. It was all up in the air.”
At Triple-A Omaha, pitching coach Doug Henry tried to work with Mendoza and begged him to experiment with a different delivery angle.
“He wanted me to come over the top more,” Mendoza said. “I was more three-quarter angle, and my pitches were pretty flat at times. But I didn’t take to the change right away.”
In fact, Mendoza didn’t take to the change for months. It wasn’t until August of 2010 when he finally saw the light.
“I was able to do it more consistently and it started to finally feel comfortable,” Mendoza said. “My pitches were more down in the zone. I was getting some results. So I took that feeling into the off-season and into spring training.”
The rest of Mendoza’s story is well-documented. With his new arm angle and a new boost in confidence, Mendoza dominated the Pacific Coast League in 2011, He was named the league’s pitcher of the year after going 12-5 with a dazzling 2.18 ERA.
“Keep in mind that it’s a hitter’s league,” Omaha manager Mike Jirschele said. “The best thing about Luis was that he got people out, night in and night out, even when he didn’t have his ‘A’ stuff. He was amazing.”
Mendoza, 28, was so good, in fact, that he got a September call-up and started twice for the Royals. He gave up just two runs in those starts and won both.
Naturally, all Mendoza could think about during the off-season was winning a spot on the Royals’ staff this spring.
“I worked very hard all last season and in the off-season,” he said. “I wanted that chance to prove I belonged here.”
Mendoza got that chance and won a job in the rotation with a terrific spring. But now, of course, he has to continue to prove himself. He knows he is on a short leash.
“Oh, yes, because there are guys in the minors ready to come up at any time,” he said. “And you have (Felipe) Paulino getting closer all the time to be 100 percent healthy. I can’t relax.”
So far, Mendoza’s fight to prove he belongs in the big leagues has offered mixed results. He was decent in his first start, but dreadful in his last two starts. He’s 0-2 with a 6.92 ERA.
The most disturbing part to Mendoza is that he has lost his command.
“I’ve got eight walks in two games,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s not me. I’m better than that. I don’t feel like I’m missing by much but I’m still missing.”
Mendoza can’t put a finger on the problem.
“You know, I was pitching pretty well in spring training,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t make a mistake. It felt like the regular season to me.
“Now, I still feel that way and maybe I’m trying too hard. I don’t know. I’ve just got to get back to what was working last year.”
Mendoza admits he’d like to be as confident again as he was in 2011.
“Yeah, it just felt like it didn’t matter who I was facing,” he said. “I always felt like I would get the job done and win.
“That’s the feeling I need to get back to. I know I have to keep proving myself.”
Despite his so-so start to the season, Mendoza, though, isn’t concerned he’ll ever revert to that disastrous 2010 form.
“Oh, no. That was a long time ago to me,” he said. “That’s not me anymore. But I don’t take anything for granted. Not in this game. Not for me.”