Pirates Notebook: Sanchez's gem rises above

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The Pirates' clubhouse still was abuzz yesterday about second baseman Freddy Sanchez's superb diving stop on Albert Pujols Wednesday, notably that it was No. 1 on ESPN's nightly "Top 10 Plays" segment.

And this as part of a sequence where Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury robbing the Washington Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin ranked No. 3, and Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Carlos Pena flipping into the visiting dugout to catch a popup ranked No. 2.

"After those plays? I couldn't believe it," Sanchez said. "Fleury's save changed that whole game for the Pens. And what Pena did was incredible."

So was Sanchez's feat, easily the Pirates' best defensive play of the season: Pujols drilled a ball to the shortstop side of second base, Sanchez broke quickly, landed face-first into the grass to get it, then put every bit of his frame into the throw, ending up on his back.

Sanchez has become a regular on the segment this year, his glovework apparently at a new level. And not just because he has only one error.

"Yeah, I feel that way because of everything I've done," he said of his extensive offseason training in Tempe, Ariz. "I'll never be fast or quick, but I feel faster and quicker. I feel like I'm getting to balls and making throws I haven't made in the past."

Time to make hay?

The last-place Pirates hardly are in a position to look down at anyone in the National League. Still, they probably cannot help but take note of the urgency of the coming seven games against Washington and Colorado.

The Nationals are almost universally considered the worst team in Major League Baseball at 11-21, and the Rockies, who open a three-game set tonight at PNC Park, are 13-20.

Manager John Russell said the Pirates were far more focused on themselves.

"Our hitting is getting better, our starting pitching's been good all along, and our bullpen is getting back on track," Russell said. "If we keep those things going, we've got a pretty good opportunity here."

Buried treasure

• Today will mark Jim Tracy's first visit to PNC Park since being fired as the Pirates' manager in October 2007. Tracy is the Rockies' bench coach.

Eric Hinske made his first start of the season at third base, spelling Andy LaRoche. Hinske played the position early in his career and a bit in spring training.

• The game Wednesday marked the first in nearly five years in which neither the Pirates nor their opponent issued a walk. That previously happened Aug. 25, 2004, against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Not coincidentally, Russell said, the defense was sound on both sides: "You always see better defense when the pitchers are throwing strikes."

• Pirates Charities' new Miracle League Field in Cranberry -- one that allows children with wheelchairs, walkers and other specific needs to play baseball -- will open with a ceremony May 16. Sanchez, who donated to the field, will attend.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com


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