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Winning Over a Friend : Waves’ Melendez Making an Impact

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s a picturesque afternoon in Malibu Canyon with clear skies and plenty of sunshine. Sitting in the baseball field bleachers at Pepperdine University, Dan Melendez is all smiles as he watches the ocean waves crash along the cliffs below him.

Melendez, a 1989 graduate of St. Bernard High, said life at Pepperdine definitely agrees with him.

“I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else right now,” Melendez said. “Is this the way to live or what? This place is almost too good to be true.”

From where Melendez is sitting, he certainly seems to be on top of the world. A freshman on the baseball team, he has started at first base in all of the Waves’ 63 regular-season games. He is batting .320, has scored 36 runs and is second on the team in runs batted in (49) and home runs (10).

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Although Melendez has suffered from a sore left thigh the past two weeks, he has played with pain.

His play has so impressed opposing coaches that he is the leading candidate for West Coast Conference freshman-of-the-year honors.

Melendez could improve his reputation further with an outstanding performance this weekend in a critical three-game series against 11th-rated Loyola Marymount. Pepperdine (35-22 and 22-11 in the WCC) needs to sweep the series to claim its seventh consecutive WCC title and receive an automatic bid in the NCAA tournament.

The Waves, who without a sweep would be a borderline team for an at-large berth in the tournament, have beaten the Lions in two of three games.

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But there is more at stake for Melendez than a conference championship and a postseason award. The fact that he wasn’t actively recruited by nearby Loyola and is good friends with the Lions’ starting left fielder, Tim Williams, an ’87 St. Bernard graduate, makes a good performance even more important.

“I guess you could say I’m feeling some pressure about this series,” Melendez said. “For the seniors, I want them to be have been part of a program that never lost a WCC title. And as a freshman, I want to continue that tradition of winning here.”

It’s been an up-and-down season for Pepperdine, which started off slow but is finishing strong. The Waves are a young team and Melendez is one of four freshmen starters. His ability to adjust quickly from high school to college baseball has drawn praise from his coaches and teammates.

“I recruited Dan with the intention that he would be able to come in and start,” said Pepperdine Coach Andy Lopez. “But he has even exceeded some of my expectations. He has stepped into some critical situations and really performed well. We’ve asked a lot of him, but he’s been able to adjust.”

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One of the first things Lopez asked Melendez to do was bat fourth behind senior Chris Martin. Opposing pitchers haven’t been able to look past Martin since Melendez has posted some impressive numbers.

“Dan swings the bat very well,” Martin said. “I’ve scored a lot or runs off his hits.

“Every one on the team knows he’s a good player, but he’s not cocky at all. He’s handled the pressure well, especially for a freshman.”

Lopez also has asked Melendez to give up his pitching and concentrate full time on playing first base. The result is a new respect for defense and a better eye at the plate.

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Melendez was a top pitcher at St. Bernard his junior and senior seasons. He also played in the infield and led the Vikings to the Southern Section 2-A Division playoffs both seasons. He was selected to the all-Southern Section first team both seasons and was player of the year as senior when he was 12-3 pitching and hit .530.

“I was very relieved at not having to pitch any more,” said Melendez, who is 6-foot-4, 185 pounds. “I never really liked pitching. It always made my arm so sore that I often was too tired to swing the bat. But my (high school) team needed me on the mound, so I did what I had to do. This season, however, I’ve been able to concentrate more fully on my swing and my defense. I’m definitely doing better at both things.”

St. Bernard Coach Bob Yarnall said Melendez definitely is commanding more respect at the plate.

“I think he’s showing all the (professional) scouts that he should have been drafted higher,” Yarnall said. “He’s the best pure hitter I’ve ever coached. And I’ve had some big players come through here.”

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Melendez was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the seventh round of June’s amateur draft, but elected to go to college because he said he felt he wasn’t ready for professional baseball mentally or physically.

He won’t be eligible for the draft again until the end of his junior year, but if he continues to perform at his current level, he will be drafted again.

Melendez, who hasn’t declared a major, said he anticipates a career in the major leagues.

“Dan is definitely a position player who will do very well in professional baseball,” Loyola Coach Chris Smith said. “I watched him play all through high school and was always impressed with what he could do and with his attitude.

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“I was well stocked with first baseman, so I really couldn’t recruit him. But the fact that he is doing so well doesn’t really surprise me.”

Melendez is not surprised by his success, either.

“My goal was to come here and start,” said Melendez, who chose Pepperdine over USC. “The ability to battle for a starting job was a significant factor in why I came here. I had a hunch I could perform well on the college level. I’m staying quiet and working hard, but I’m pleased with my progress.

“What a great place to play baseball. Definitely no regrets here.”

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Pals Off the Field, Foes on It

Tim Williams and Dan Melendez were teammates on the St. Bernard High baseball team. Williams was Southern Section CIF player of the year in 1987 and Melendez, Williams’ junior by two years, received the same honor last season.

Both spurned professional offers to attend Southland colleges, Williams at Loyola Marymount and Melendez at Pepperdine. Both are having fine seasons. Williams has emerged as Loyola’s left-handed power hitter and Melendez appears on his way to earning West Coast Conference freshman-of-the-year honors.

They are close friends, taking batting practice together in their leisure time and talking on the phone weekly.

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But this weekend they are rivals fighting for the West Coast Conference title. Loyola and Pepperdine play a three-game, season-ending series in Malibu to decide the WCC title, starting with a 2 p.m. game Friday. They finish with an 11 a.m. doubleheader Saturday.

Loyola leads the conference by three games, so a Lion victory would clinch the title and the conference’s NCAA berth. Pepperdine needs a sweep to force a tie, in which case the Waves would be declared conference champions by virtue of winning the season series.


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