Mendoza racks up first big league win
Righty allows just one run in five innings; Cruz goes yard
ARLINGTON -- Luis Mendoza watched the ninth inning from the dugout, knowing his first Major League victory was on the line. The situation grew precarious by the batter."I was a little bit nervous," Mendoza said. "I try not to be negative at those times." He watched as reliever Joaquin Benoit, trying to protect a two-run lead, walked Miguel Tejada. He watched as Kevin Millar singled to left and Melvin Mora walked to load the bases. Mendoza was watching when Scott Moore hit a deep fly ball to center that scored Tejada and moved Millar to third. If Mendoza was really paying attention, he would have noticed shortstop Michael Young pointing and screaming at center fielder Marlon Byrd to throw the ball to second base and keep Mora, representing the go-ahead run, from moving into scoring position. At that point, Mendoza's first Major League victory looked like it was about to vanish. But Benoit came back to strike out Paul Bako on a full-count changeup, and catcher Gerald Laird gunned down Mora trying to steal, allowing the Rangers to hang onto a 3-2 victory over the Baltimore Orioles on Friday night. Mendoza, a 23-year-old right-hander from Vera Cruz, Mexico, jumped for joy in the Rangers dugout. "I'm just so happy," he said afterwards in the clubhouse. "I don't have enough words to express how I felt at that moment. I just felt so good." He wasn't the only one. "For that being his first win, we had to shut it down," Benoit said after earning his sixth save and helping the Rangers snap a four-game losing streak. "I walked a couple of guys and fell behind a couple of hitters, but we got the job done." Orioles manager Dave Trembley said he wanted to hit-and-run on the full-count pitch to stay out of the double play. Rangers manager Ron Washington said he wasn't worried about a double steal or a bad throw allowing the tying run to score in that situation. He just wanted to keep the go-ahead run off second. "I was throwing him out," Laird said. "He gave me the throw to second. I figured if I get a good throw off, we had a chance of getting him." The throw was better than good. "Gerald threw a laser," Washington said. That's how it ended for Mendoza on a night he made his second Major League start and his fourth appearance. He held the Orioles to one run on four hits and a walk while striking out two over five innings and 71 pitches. "He pitched very well," Washington said. "When you have the stuff he has and you trust that stuff, you shouldn't be concerned about facing big league hitters. The key is throwing strikes and the key is when the big hitters do get you, you show some poise and keep it going." Mendoza did just that in the second inning after Tejada led off the inning with a home run down the right-field line. Mendoza came back to get Millar on a fly to right and Mora on a grounder to third. His defense then came through to stop a second run from scoring. After Moore singled with two outs, Gustavo Molina lined a double into the right-field corner. Orioles third-base coach Juan Samuel waved Moore home, but the Rangers worked the relay they designed and practiced back in Spring Training seven long months ago. Right fielder Nelson Cruz dug the ball out of the corner and made a strong throw to second baseman Ian Kinsler, who turned and did the same to Laird. Moore slid in right as the ball arrived, but Laird blocked the plate and tagged him out to end the threat. "That relay was nicely done," Washington said. "Gerald did a nice job getting his body in front of the plate. If he had been swiping, he might have been safe." A two-run single by Jarrod Saltalamacchia gave the Rangers a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the second, and Mendoza never gave it back. He retired nine of the last 11 batters he faced before coming out after five. Cruz added a fourth-inning home run to give the Rangers an added cushion for the dramatic ninth. "We just wanted to get [Mendoza] through five innings," Washington said. "Don't think we didn't want to send him back out there, but we don't want to hurt him." Can't do that -- Mendoza has another start. He's scheduled to pitch Wednesday against the Angels in the final home game of the season. Then it's a long wait to Spring Training and Triple-A Oklahoma. He has looked good so far this September, but the Rangers are far from considering him as a rotation candidate in 2008. "You have to earn your way," Washington said. "The kid has a good arm, but unless there is a need in Spring Training and somebody breaks down, he's going to pitch in Triple-A." At least he doesn't have to worry about that first Major League victory.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.