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Sunday, February 15, 2009
Updated: February 16, 3:47 PM ET
Spotlight finds CWS star Mendonca

By Bryant-Jon Anteola
Baseball America

His fingers can bend and straighten again, and the swelling has gone away.

The rest of Tommy Mendonca's life hasn't returned to normal as quickly.

The Fresno State third baseman who dazzled a nation with his spectacular defense and long-ball swing in the 2008 College World Series -- all while playing with an injured right hand -- has been adjusting to the newfound attention.

"It's been sweet," Mendonca said. "I just don't want it to change me. I'm a laid-back dude. I'm not the type to be too into myself. I've seen that with other players and don't like it."

Tommy Mendonca
Tommy Mendonca played in the College World Series with two dislocated fingers.

How highly recognized has Mendonca become? In the days after Fresno State won the national championship and pulled off the greatest underdog run in college baseball, Mendonca joined the USA Baseball college national team and played in Europe. Before any games began, Mendonca visited Amsterdam's red-light district, where a stranger approached and recognized him from Fresno State's championship run.

A month earlier, few even in Fresno knew Mendonca.

But in a town that tends to idolize Fresno State stars, Mendonca has become a local celebrity, regularly approached these days by fellow students and strangers. During the parade the day after Fresno State returned from the College World Series, a sign held up by a handful of girls singled out the Turlock, Calif., native.

"I'm single," the sign read. "Mendonca me!"

Mendonca blushes to such attention, which is sure to carry over into this season. Now a junior and one of six returning starters from last year, Mendonca is the most recognized face back to defend Fresno State's first national crown.

When Georgia coach David Perno, whose team lost to Fresno State in the CWS Finals, was asked in January what stood out most of Fresno State's play, he immediately said: "That third baseman."

Perno wasn't alone. On the night Fresno State beat Georgia 6-1 to win the title, Mendonca went 0-for-4 and struck out twice. Still, he was named the Most Outstanding Player, having provided sensational defense and countless clutch plays, many in tense moments, to vault himself into a category few college players reach: defensive game-changer.

"That third baseman … whew," Perno said. "His defense was just incredible. You can't get anything past him. It's almost like you have to game plan around his defense."

Added Fresno State right-hander Holden Sprague: "It's like there's a brick wall on that side of the field. Balls aren't going to get past him. He's going to make the plays. He's a lifesaver for a pitcher."

Mendonca was almost as dangerous with his power swing, even if it translated to an exorbitant amount of strikeouts, too. He led the Bulldogs with 19 home runs and managed to lift his average from .206 after two months to .285 by season's end.

"I was all jacked up," Mendonca said of his early-season struggles. "I was jerky. I was doing everything. My head was moving. My feet were going too fast. It was just a mess. The pitch would be in the dirt and I'd start striding."

His swing corrected by the postseason, Mendonca tied a College World Series mark with four home runs in Omaha. But like Fresno State -- which at 47-31 had the most losses of any national champion -- Mendonca has his own unflattering record. He struck out 97 times last season, more than any other player in Division I history.

"Hey, I'll take the [strikeout] record with a championship," Mendonca said with a big smile.

But perhaps most astonishing is that Mendonca played throughout the postseason with two dislocated fingers and another pair of badly bruised fingers all on his right (throwing) hand. He suffered the injury during Fresno State's first game of the NCAA tournament after jumping to make a defensive play and landing awkwardly.

His fingers permanently bent for two weeks during the postseason, Mendonca altered his throwing motion to compensate. He also changed his bat grip, with his bottom hand loose around the handle to avoid pain on contact.

"It was a killer," he said. "But if you can't play through a little pain, you can't play baseball, in my opinion. I didn't really care.

"If we had to cut 'em off, I'd cut 'em off."

Instead, Mendonca will get to use his fingers to wear his championship ring, which should complement the gold medal won with Team USA, which capped its 25-0 summer with a first-place finish at the FISU World Championships.

It's been a life-altering course for Mendonca since the College World Series with the fame, the recognition and accolades. All 30 major league teams have made contact with Mendonca, trying to gauge his interest in signing a professional contract after his junior season this spring.

But Mendonca, true to his persona, never is in a hurry. "I just want to enjoy all of it, have fun," he said. "Not worry about draft stuff."

It's that same attitude that helps Mendonca thrive on the diamond, staying loose under pressure and carefree with his swing.

"He's never in a hurry but always loose and under control," Fresno State coach Mike Batesole said. "You can't really practice what he does. He is what he is. There's not many like Tommy."

But there are plenty who know of him now.

For more information on college baseball, check out Baseball America.