USF sophomore shortstop Sam Mende finally got back to what he does best this week: playing defense.
Despite suffering a broken jaw in March, when he was hit in the face by a pitch, Mende showed that he has not missed a beat defensively, returning to the field for the first time last weekend since the injury and making a diving stop to retire a UCF batter Tuesday in the first inning.
Mende, who returned to the batting lineup as a designated hitter with his jaw wired shut, said getting back to the field is a plus.
“It feels good,” Mende said. “It’s been horrible sitting on the bench and watching everyone play and just hitting.”
Mende’s jaw is still wired shut, so he has to continue wearing a protective face guard on his helmet during at-bats. Psychologically, it’s had an impact on his approach at the plate as well.
“Offensively, my helmet does affect me sometimes, but if I let that get in my head, then it takes away from my
at-bat and I stop trusting myself,” he said.
And physically, it’s affected him. He’s not able to get any solid food in his system, so fatigue has been a factor in his return. For energy, he relies heavily on protein shakes and smoothies for daily meals, said coach Lelo Prado.
“I lost 20 pounds, and it’s affecting how I’m acting and even living,” Mende said.
Despite the difficulties, Mende has still performed well at the plate, leading the team in hitting (.328) and on-base percentage (.418).
The Bulls (13-16, 5-1) will need Mende to keep their solid conference performances, as they look to maintain their first-place spot against Georgetown in a three-game series, starting Friday at 7 p.m. The Bulls are currently tied for first with Louisville and Rutgers at 5-1 in conference games.
“If we can’t take this, I don’t care if I’m playing,” Mende said regarding the way the team’s played with or without him. “We have to win. We have to figure something out.”
Junior centerfielder and leadoff hitter Ryan Lockwood missed Tuesday night’s game with a leg injury, and Prado said he’s unsure if he’ll return to the lineup. But left-hander Teddy Kaufman will be able to return to his spot after missing his last start with forearm tightness, Prado said.
Junior Randy Fontanez (3.38 ERA), who has pitched a complete game in each of his last two starts, will take the mound for the Bulls in the series opener looking to notch his second win this season. And Mende will try and improve USF’s defensive struggles. The Bulls have 40 errors this season – the third highest in the Big East.
“That’s just tough to do … and to stay mentally charged,” Prado said of Mende’s recent performance. “He’s played unbelievable even with a broken jaw. He’s done more than I can ask.”