Olympic medalist and ESPN analyst Jessica Mendoza moderates at the...

Olympic medalist and ESPN analyst Jessica Mendoza moderates at the 2014 Women in Cable Telecommunications Leadership Conference on Sept. 16, 2014 in Manhattan Credit: Getty Images / Larry Busacca

Jessica Mendoza is one of the best hitters of the 21st century, but as she sat in the TV booth at Dodger Stadium Aug. 30 for a "Sunday Night Baseball" game between the Cubs and Dodgers, she assumed the worst.

She knew full well the social media fate that usually befalls an unfamiliar female voice on any sports-related program, let alone one as visible as ESPN's exclusive national showcase.

"I was just ready, going in with my battle armor," she said.

That proved unnecessary.

Mendoza's Sunday night debut -- the second game of her life as an analyst at a Major League Baseball game -- was an immediate, almost universal hit among fans and professional critics alike.

"It did make me feel good that [the reaction] wasn't as bad as I thought," she said.

Within days what was supposed to be a one-game fill-in for Curt Schilling turned into a rest-of-the-season assignment. She since has done two more Sunday games and this weekend will be at Citi Field when the Mets host the Yankees in the Subway Series finale.

Mendoza was not surprised she could do the job, but the speed with which all this has unfolded has come as a bit of a shock.

"I feel like there's been so much support of it, which also helped give me more confidence as well," she said. "I don't know if 'surprised' is the right word, but it definitely has been not as expected how this entire thing has come about."

Mendoza, 34, has proved to be a natural communicator, but another key to acceptance is her athletic credentials. She was a softball star at Stanford, won an Olympic gold medal in 2004 and a silver in 2008 and also played professionally before retiring early last year.

She said her ESPN partner, John Kruk, got a text during that Aug. 30 game from recently inducted Hall of Famer John Smoltz asking him who the female voice belonged to.

"He was like, 'Google her,' " Mendoza said. "Five minutes later he got back to him and said like, 'Wow, OK.' "

Hitting softballs and baseballs is not exactly the same thing, of course, but Mendoza said it is less different than one might expect. Her ability to talk baseball was further enhanced by her days playing baseball as a youngster and taking batting practice with the baseball players her father, Gil, coached at a community college near their Southern California home.

"I never changed my swing, so nothing was ever different," she said. "There are definitely differences with the two games, but the hitting aspect, it really doesn't change . . . I would see pitches more up in the zone than a baseball hitter would, kind of like I look up versus down, but swing-wise they're identical."

Mendoza said she still would be playing and preparing for Rio in 2016 had the IOC not booted softball (and baseball) out of the Olympic Games effective in 2012.

"As much as the worst thing that ever happened was those sports being eliminated from the Olympics, it was a blessing in disguise for me in the sense that I don't think these [TV] opportunities would have happened later, after my career post-Olympics," she said.

"As soon as I retired I needed something that was really going to challenge me and I knew this wasn't going to be easy. It was going to take a lot of work to fill that void I've been doing for 25 years on the field."

So far, so good.

Mendoza had been an analyst for the women's softball College World Series and this year got a shot to work the baseball CWS. She also had begun appearing as a studio analyst for "Baseball Tonight." She did not analyze her first MLB game until Aug. 24.

Six days later, she was in the Sunday night booth while on the field Jake Arrieta of the Cubs no-hit the Dodgers, vastly increasing the visibility of the telecast and of Mendoza's work.

"Especially because that was pre-football, there were a lot of people tuning in," she said. "You tune in in the sixth or seventh inning you're going to stay and watch and then you're like, wait a second: What's that voice?

"When we got off the air, my phone, it's never had so many messages from people that I know or haven't talked to in years, like schoolteachers. I mean, I played in the Olympics, where you feel like, OK, the nation is watching then. And I've never seen such an outpouring, even more so than playing, from that one game."

While it occurred to her during the game how special it was potentially to be witnessing her first in-person no-hitter, it did not occur to her that would translate into increased viewership.

"I was so locked in that if I'd have thought that I think I would have lost a lot of my focus, for sure," she said.

Mendoza has been aware from the start of the impact she can have by succeeding as a woman in that role.

"That was probably the biggest thing I felt the first time going on Sunday night was that added pressure and responsibility," she said. "Pressure is a privilege, though. I took it as that. I took it on as not something negative like, oh, I better not screw up because so many people are depending on me.

"I took it as, this is an amazing opportunity not only that I have but more importantly I need to do well so this can keep happening for other people. I wanted to sound like I did belong, that I wasn't just there as a gimmick.

"I really wanted to be yeah, a different voice, but after I'm hoping a couple of innings hey, I'm just educating. I'm just trying to be a part of this game like anybody else and I do have a job where as long as someone knows the game, who cares? Female, male, let's put them on."

Mendoza grew up in the Dodgers/Angels axis and went to college in Giants/A's territory, but she said after "just kind of getting an idea of New Yorkers in general," Mets vs. Yankees is "times 10 of any rivalry I have ever experienced."

For the past week her mind has been swirling with story lines for Sunday night's game. "Matt Harvey, that topic alone is enough to talk about for the entire game," she said. "You're coming in basically with 10 hours at least of information to talk about. Then it's, where's the game going to take you?"

Schilling initially was removed from ESPN after a tweet that compared Muslims to Nazis, for which he later apologized. It is not clear what his status will be for 2016 and beyond, or what Mendoza's role will be.

"I'm more excited about next year than I've ever been, because there are a lot of unknowns, but I feel like there is a lot of opportunity out there to have something established for the season," she said.

ESPN surely will find a highly visible role for her, on Sunday nights or elsewhere.

Mendoza, who is married with two young children, recalled her decision to retire from playing and looked back with no regrets.

"For me it was just, OK, let's do this, let's just go all-in with broadcasting and hope that there's enough for me to do," she said. "I didn't know ESPN was going to be all-in back. It's been working out so far."

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