WEEHAWKEN – Most people will tell you St. Joseph star Rob Kaminsky is the best high school pitcher in New Jersey.But under the thundering buses and trucks near the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, major league scouts are watching Weehawken senior lefty Sal Anthony Mendez, too.
What’s not to like? The Mendez scouting report practically writes itself. Six feet 4, a lean 185 pounds, fastball in the high 80s, improving slider and plus change-up. And did we mention lefty?
Mendez also has the pedigree. His father, Sabah, was a draft choice out of Julia Richman High School (N.Y.) by the Yankees in 1974. And, of course, Sabah was a pitcher, and of course, he has taught his only son well.
“The story I am told is my father put a glove on my hand when I was 2 and he was so happy because apparently I picked up the baseball with my left hand,” said Sal Mendez with a smile. “He went absolutely nuts, ‘oh my, he’s lefty. He’s lefty!’ ”
Mendez bats and writes righty, but eats and throws with his left hand.
And when he got to Weehawken, Indians coach Anthony Stratton threw him into the rotation as a freshman. The thing that stood out to him then is the same thing that stands out to him now, Sal’s poise.
“The first thing I always talk about is even as a freshman he was always just so mature and respectful and polite,” said Stratton, in his seventh year at Weehawken. “And on the mound, it’s the same thing. He had the mental maturity of a senior as a freshman on the mound.”
But Mendez was largely an unknown until this past summer. He played for the Teaneck Titans and then had a chance to play for the East Cobb Braves, one of the best club teams on the summer circuit. East Cobb counts major-leaguers Jason Hayward (Braves) and Buster Posey (Giants) among its alumni.
Mendez didn’t wilt against better competition and when the high school season started, major league scouts wanted another look at him.
“The other day, three scouts were here, the Reds, the Rockies, the Indians,” Stratton said. “We’ve seen the Dodgers, the Rangers. He handles it all real well.”
“At first when it started happening, it was a delight for me that I went from being unknown to a guy who is known around the country,” Mendez said. “At first, it was a bit nerve-racking seeing these guys with radar guns standing behind home plate, but now, ever since maybe starting opening day my sophomore year, nothing in the stands really fazes me.”
Mendez has committed to playing ball at Howard Junior College in Texas, but he hopes to be called in the June draft.
“I think, deep down, Sal wants to be drafted,” Stratton said. “He has such a tremendous upside because he loves the game and he has goals set for himself. The sky is the limit.”
“Without a doubt, college is an option,” Mendez said, “but I am hoping to hear my name in the draft. That would be an accomplishment for me. I don’t have to sign. I can always go to Howard and get drafted again out of there.”
Mendez is 4-2 this season, losing two close decisions. In his last start against Fort Lee, he threw the first no-hitter for Weehawken since 1980. He isn’t scheduled to pitch again until Monday, if the Indians reach the Hudson County tournament quarterfinals. The tournament begins Saturday.
Make no mistake, thanks to Mendez, Weehawken will be a dangerous team come tournament time. Stratton said he likes his team’s draw in the state tournament and said he’d love for the Indians, 12-7, just to win a couple of games and get their confidence rolling.
“We love it when people don’t know who we are,” Mendez said. “If we play 100 percent and come out of every game and say we gave it our all, and the other team just outplays us that day, well, then so be it. But we have the type of team who can take the whole tournament this year.”
As far as Kaminsky and a debate about the best pitcher in New Jersey, even Stratton gives Kaminsky the nod, but said Mendez “is just a little bit behind him.”
Mendez said the two have never met, but he did watch Kaminsky pitch once over the summer to see what he was like.
“I wanted to see who he was and how I compared to him. I just sat there and watched. He is a hell of a player,” Mendez said. “Who’s better? That’s a close one.”