TAMPA — Sophomore shortstop Sam Mende chose USF in part because it was close to home, but if the Clearwater Central Catholic graduate could play every game even closer, he would.
As the Bulls open tonight in the Big East tournament at Clearwater's Bright House Field, Mende has reason to be optimistic. In two seasons at USF, he has played his best in his hometown.
"I'm in a whole different world," Mende said. "I don't know the answer why. I just think it's being here in Clearwater, having the comforts of home, the atmosphere and knowing the field."
In six career games at Bright House, Mende has a .593 batting average — 16-for-27, with at least two hits in each game. That includes two appearances in the Big East-Big Ten Challenge, but his best moments have come in the Big East tournament, like a three-run home run that ended a 12-2 mercy-rule win against Pittsburgh in last year's opener.
"He caught fire there last year at the end," Bulls coach Lelo Prado said. "It's his hometown. Whatever it is, I'm all for it. We need somebody to catch fire and really go this week."
Mende has endured a difficult season with one injury to another, the most serious being a broken jaw sustained when he was hit by a pitch in March. He missed six games, then played 11 with his jaw wired shut, requiring a special protective mask while batting.
"That was an experience I don't wish upon anybody," said Mende, who endured a diet of protein shakes, ice-cream shakes and, for variety, tomato soup.
After a month with no solid food he lost 23 pounds to 175, and a month later, he's still just 180. At one point, when he was ill and practicing with his jaw wired shut, he had to carry a pair of wire-cutters, knowing that if he were to throw up with his mouth wired shut, he could choke to death.
So while his numbers are down from a strong freshman year — his average is .291, down from .319, and his RBIs dipped from 37 to 22 — he has shown signs of coming around in recent weeks as he has been able to eat normally. After hitting just two home runs in his first 41 games, he had two in this weekend's three-game series at Pittsburgh, including a three-run shot in the 10th inning of the Bulls' 14-12 win in the regular-season finale.
The Bulls, too, have had an up-and-down season with injuries and inconsistency. USF opened 3-12, then rallied to a 16-16 record, only to stumble again for the first losing record in four seasons under Prado.
Tonight's starter for USF, Randy Fontanez, and lefty Andrew Barbosa, who will start Thursday, are two of the league's best pitchers. Mende said USF's strong play in winning a doubleheader Friday at Pittsburgh was a reminder of what the team is capable of doing.
"No one loses talent. We have to trust each other," he said. "With the leadership and dedication this team has, if we stay positive with the talent we have, we can do a lot of things."
Said Prado: "I hope we play this week the way we thought we'd play all season. We really haven't. It's just a matter of peaking at the right time."
HONORS: USF pitchers Randy Fontanez and Andrew Barbosa, both juniors, were named second-team All-big East.