Bucs' Sanchez relishes life lesson
BRADENTON, Fla. -- A punch to the jaw may have knocked catcher Tony Sanchez onto a better career path.
In October while playing in the Florida Instructional League, the Pirates farmhand broke his jaw during a bar scuffle. The injury was not serious and healed just as it did in 2010, when Sanchez twice suffered a fractured jaw when he was hit by pitches.
But the incident motivated Sanchez, 23, to do some soul-searching about his commitment to baseball.
"After that, it's like I flipped a switch," he said. "I said to myself, 'This is the time in your life when you could become somebody really important in Pittsburgh. You need to have a good head on your shoulders.'
"I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and not making the right choices. I learned from it, and it was a tough lesson to learn. But I'm in this shape now because of what happened."
Sanchez is sturdier and stronger than he has been at any point since the Pirates drafted him with the fourth pick in 2009. He fine-tuned his eating habits -- most mornings, he munches a handful of fruit as he makes his rounds at Pirate City -- and spent more time in the gym.
Over the winter, he packed on a dozen pounds of muscle. Last year, in his first full season at Double-A Altoona, Sanchez struggled to keep his weight up -- losing four or five pounds during each game -- which affected his stamina.
"I'd start a game at 213 (pounds) and, by the end of the game, I'd be 208," he said. "It was ridiculous. If you want to lose weight, catch nine innings, six days a week."
As he climbed the minor league ladder, Sanchez hit .309 with Short-Season State College, Low-A West Virginia and High-A Lynchburg and Bradenton. But he batted only .241 in 118 games with Altoona last year, the first time he played more than 59 games in a season.
"Anyone who's seen me play knows I have a live bat," he said. "Last year was kind of a fluke."
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On Friday, Sanchez showed his power stroke is intact: He clouted a three-run homer off right-hander Jared Hughes in an intrasquad scrimmage at McKechnie Field.
"It was nice to see I can drive the ball again like a man," Sanchez said. "That's the first thing I thought running the bases: 'Oh, there it is. Finally.' I've waited a year to hear the ball sound like that off the bat."
Last year's offensive struggles did not affect Sanchez's focus on defense.
"He has a better understanding of the position -- not just the mechanical and technical sides of it but the tactical and leadership sides of the game," assistant general manager Kyle Stark said. "The biggest thing has got to be his relationship with the pitchers. It's got to be all about those guys, and they've got to feel that. As he gets that trust and as he understands how to attack hitters, he'll make more progress."
Sanchez is slated to begin this season in Altoona, but a midseason promotion to Triple-A Indianapolis is not out of the question. He could reach the majors sometime next year, which would give him time to settle in before the Pirates' top pitching prospects -- Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie -- reach the big leagues.
"That would be ideal," Sanchez said. "I'd have the experience of how to deal with big league hitters, and I'd be able to coach our pitchers how to get them out. I'm catching those guys now and starting to build that trust with them."
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