For Pirates' Sanchez, third All-Star berth an 'honor'

But stiff lower back could cost him next series in Houston or more

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MIAMI -- Freddy Sanchez yesterday was chosen to represent the Pirates in Major League Baseball's All-Star Game for the third time in four years, and he was predictably flattered.

"It's just such an honor," he said. "So special."

It remains to be seen, though, if he can he go.

Sanchez's stiff lower right back made only marginal progress by the time he reported to Land Shark Stadium yesterday morning, and manager John Russell decided not only to keep him out of the game against the Florida Marlins -- the third he has missed -- but also from picking up a bat.

"He's a little better, but he's not there, for sure," Russell said.

Not working out yesterday almost surely will keep Sanchez out of at least a game or two of the three-game series that begins tonight in Houston.

And the All-Star Game is July 14, at St. Louis' Busch Stadium, just eight days away.

"Oh, I'll be there," Sanchez said. "My back's already started to loosen up, and I don't see why I wouldn't be able to get into at least one of the games in Houston. Something like this happened to me once last year, and I was fine."

That was July 27, when back spasms knocked him out of a game. He was back Aug. 4.

General manager Neal Huntington said the Pirates are not currently weighing a placement on the 15-day disabled list and that the athletic trainers tentatively expect Sanchez back by the middle of the week. But he added that anything extending to Friday or Saturday would prompt a reconsideration of that, as well as Sanchez's All-Star status.

"It's a great opportunity for any player to go, and we're all looking forward to Freddy being there," Huntington said.

Every team is required to have representation, but Sanchez has ample credentials to back his selection by National League managers Charlie Manuel of the Philadelphia Phillies, Tony La Russa of the host St. Louis Cardinals and Joe Torre of the Los Angeles Dodgers:

• He is batting .316, tops in the majors among second basemen by a 15-point margin. And his consistency is seen month to month: .337 in April, .300 in May, 282 in June.

• He has six home runs, three triples and 25 doubles, a power output he credits to a strenuous offseason workout regimen targeted at specific baseball-related muscles. His doubles rank sixth among all players in the majors.

• His defense has been superb, with his lone error coming on a dropped popup May 2. No regular second baseman in the majors has a better fielding percentage than his .997. The San Diego Padres' David Eckstein and Detroit Tigers' Placido Polanco are tied.

All that, plus, as his coaching staff and teammates will attest, his enthusiasm for the game might never be higher than what he has shown this year, beginning with an energetic spring training that drew praise throughout.

"Freddy's had a great year," Russell said. "He worked awfully hard in spring training, and I think he feels better about himself than he ever has."

Part of that, Sanchez stressed, should be credited to new infield instructor Perry Hill. Sanchez and shortstop Jack Wilson might be performing at their career peaks defensively, and no player on the roster has improved more in that regard than third baseman Andy LaRoche.

"He's the best, and I just can't say enough about him," Sanchez said. "Every day that you're with him, you learn something new."

Sanchez also expressed appreciation to those selecting him.

"To have three great managers like Charlie, Tony and Joe decide to pick me ... that's a great honor."

He was asked if the offseason regimen made this selection special.

"Honestly, it does. I feel like I worked extra hard to get my shoulder right, my body feeling good. Knowing the effort I put in, yeah, this means a lot to me."

Sanchez also moved closer to a critical contractual goal: He now can trigger an $8 million option for 2010 by making 600 plate appearances this year. Without the All-Star berth, as per his contract, he needed 635. He currently has 329, with 80 games left.

The Pirates' only other realistic candidate was starter Zach Duke, 8-7 with a 3.20 ERA.

"I thought both could have made it," Russell said.

"Zach was just as deserving as I was," Sanchez said. "He'll have a lot more chances, the way he's pitching."

Duke said he had not been thinking about being selected.

"Freddy's deserving for everything he's done," he said. "He's had a great year, offensively and defensively."

Through these 16-plus losing seasons, the Pirates have had a single All-Star representative 14 times. They have not had more than two since 1981, when Bill Madlock, Dave Parker, Phil Garner and Mike Easler made it.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at . Catch more on the Pirates at the PG's PBC Blog .


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