When Weehawken High School’s baseball team upset North Bergen a year ago in the Ed Ford Memorial Hudson County Baseball Tournament, a lot of people simply chalked it up as a fluke.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, like Haley’s Comet or the U.S. Olympic Hockey team’s gold medal performance in the 1980 Olympics.
Weehawken didn’t belong with the big boys, a Group I enrollment school that doesn’t even play in the new-fangled Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League. They were like Ponyboy, Dallas, Soda-Pop and Two-Bit, you know, the gang from the movie and popular teen book “The Outsiders.”
The Indians couldn’t follow up their big win over North Bergen last year, but took one of the big boys, St. Peter’s Prep, to the final out in a 1-0 loss.
So when the tournament began again recently, the Indians found themselves as the No. 6 seed and once again had to square off against North Bergen – and its ace pitcher A.J. Gale – for the rights to head back to the county tourney Final Four for an improbable second straight year.
But the Indians had their own ace ready, namely senior left-hander Sal Mendez, who has been absolutely on fire of late.
Mendez entered the North Bergen game off the heels of a three-hit shutout over St. Mary’s of Rutherford, a long-time nemesis, and a no-hit, 15-strikeout masterpiece against Fort Lee.
“Definitely, it’s my senior year and I wanted to go out with a bang,” Mendez said. “I definitely came in more confident. The no-hitter really boosted my confidence and I was ready.”
Mendez said that he wasn’t thinking about his win last year against the Bruins.
“I just knew it was going to be a dogfight,” Mendez said. “A.J. is a great pitcher, one of the best in the county. I knew it was going to be a tough one.”
A few weeks ago, Weehawken head coach Anthony Stratton had a little chat with his standout hurler. At the time, Mendez had a 3-2 record and wasn’t really clicking on all cylinders.
“I told him that I hoped he would get drafted [in the annual Major League Baseball free agent amateur draft in June], but if he wanted to get drafted, he better start pitching like a professional right now,” Stratton said. “From that point, he stepped it up.”
And sure enough, Mendez defeated the St. John’s-bound Gale and North Bergen, 3-0, to advance to the county semifinals for a second straight year.
“No doubt about it, we have to be considered for real,” Stratton said. “We went to North Bergen two years in a row and knocked them off. We beat the best pitcher in the county just to get to the semifinals. It’s phenomenal.”
Mendez fired his third straight shutout, this time a one-hitter, striking out 10.
“After beating A.J. Gale, I have to say he’s the best pitcher in the county,” Stratton said of his ace. “He knows the game. He continues to want to get better.”
Now, Mendez owns a 6-2 record with a downright stingy 0.68 earned run average.
“It’s definitely one of my biggest highlights of my career,” Mendez said. “I went out and got the no-hitter and beat St. Mary’s before that, but this was big. We beat one of the best teams in the county, one of the best pitchers. Last year, we got a little respect, but this year, I think we’re going to get more. We’re a lot better than people think. No one wants to play us now.”
Mendez has been drawing attention from the professional scouts, with the Cleveland Indians, Texas Rangers, and Colorado Rockies showing interest of late. The scouts were on hand last week with their radar guns pointed at Mendez, clocking his every pitch. He was reaching 89 miles per hour on the gun, not a bad number for a lefty.
“I really don’t pay attention to them being there,” Mendez said. “I do my best to block it all out.”
“The scouts are definitely there,” Stratton said. “Whether he gets drafted remains to be seen.”
Stratton knows that the Indians can only go as far as the big lefty takes them.
“No doubt, Sal is carrying us on his back,” Stratton said. “We’ve been scrapping together some runs. Dante Cieri has been our best hitter lately. He has like 12 doubles and three triples. He got the big hit to drive in David Strandberg in the North Bergen game.”
One thing is for sure, the Indians know now what it is like to make some noise in the county tournament.
“They talk about that and they love it,” Stratton said. “Definitely, we’re not supposed to be here. No one wants us to win it. But we’re in it to win it now. We opened some eyes last year and the kids all know what this Hudson County Tournament is all about. We got a little taste of it last year and we understand how important it is to win it.”
Just how important? Well, the last time Weehawken won a Hudson County title, the year was 1960. Most of these players’ parents weren’t even born then. Hell, this reporter wasn’t even on the planet yet.
Having a stud pitcher certainly gives a team more than a puncher’s chance.
“Ever since last year ended, we wanted to come back this year and prove we could win this tournament,” Mendez said. “I think this year’s team is a better team. We have better defense. We’re on a bit of a hot streak now. I think we can get the job done.”
The Outsiders, er, Indians defeated Bayonne, 8-4, Wednesday afternoon, to advance to the county final against top-seeded St. Peter’s Prep, which squeaked by Hudson Catholic, 6-5, in the other semifinal scheduled for Saturday afternoon at Ed “Faa” Ford Caven Point Complex and Cochrane Field.
With Mendez getting rest after the North Bergen win, you could now be rest assured the talented left-hander would be shooting for his fourth straight shutout in the county finals.
Yes, it’s safe to say that Weehawken is definitely for real. Going to the county final is proof.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.