INDIANAPOLIS -- Nobody has an easy route to the major leagues. But catcher Tony Sanchez's journey through the Pirates' minor league system has been particularly challenging.
When the Pirates drafted him with the fourth overall pick in 2009, he drew the ire of many fans who believed his skill level did not match that spot. After some early success, he missed most of the 2010 season with a broken jaw after getting hit by a couple pitches. When he returned, he struggled at the plate.
Then there were off-field incidents. In May 2011, Sanchez posted critical comments on Twitter about the umpiring of a game in Class AA Altoona. He deactivated his Twitter account and was benched for three games. And this offseason, Sanchez's jaw was broken again in a bar fight.
"Our whole philosophy here is to build on growth, as a guy, as a man," Pirates assistant general manager Kyle Stark said. "That usually only happens through adversity, whether being challenged on the field, being challenged off the field, sometimes self-imposed, unfortunately."
Now Sanchez is one step away from the major leagues and drawing a lot of positive attention and accolades for his play on the field and attitude off it.
Sanchez, 24, has taken control of the pitching staff in Class AAA Indianapolis, a group that led the team to a division title and a playoff berth.
"He has taken ownership of this pitching staff," Indianapolis manager Dean Treanor said. "He wants to do what's best for them. That's a lot of growth by him. You've got to give him credit for that."
When the Pirates promoted Sanchez to Indianapolis in early June, they told him his biggest responsibility was to take care of his teammates on the mound. Sanchez has embraced the responsibility.
"That's been my motto. I work harder for them behind the plate than I do for myself at the plate," he said.
When he first arrived in Indianapolis, he took two weeks to learn as much as he could about his pitchers. Since then, he has done everything he can to earn their trust. That includes consistently blocking pitches in the dirt, throwing out 33 percent of baserunners who attempt to steal and getting steamrolled by Ernesto Mejia, a 6-foot-5 infield prospect for the Atlanta Braves, and holding onto the ball.
But, perhaps most important, it includes sound game-calling. In a game against the Louisville Bats last week at Victory Field, starting pitcher Chris Leroux gave up a leadoff home run followed by a double. So, he and Sanchez adjusted. Leroux finished with nine strikeouts, and the Indians won the game.
"He's an asset for us," teammate Justin Wilson said. "He's extremely good behind the plate, calls a great game. I have a lot of respect for him with what he's done here so far."
Sanchez still has a lot of work to do before he is ready to make the jump to the major leagues. Entering this weekend, he was hitting .222 for Indianapolis. Stark said Sanchez has to focus on two points to improve his hitting: find a consistent swing and plan better.
"These pitchers know what he's doing," he said.
Stark said Sanchez has more work to do in Indianapolis and likely will stay with the Indians through their playoff run. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said Sunday that Sanchez is not likely to be a September call-up.
"When I was a little kid, I used to dream about being a major league baseball player," Sanchez said. "At this point in my life, that dream can come true in a week or two."
If it doesn't happen this year, Sanchez, who is liked by teammates and well-regarded among the staff in Indianapolis, won't be discouraged. He said the organization will call him up when he is ready. He will continue to work hard in Indianapolis with a seemingly stuck smile on his face.
"He knows he's under some pressure, but he doesn't really look at it like that," teammate Matt Hague said. "He has fun with it. If something goes bad, he learns from it. He doesn't get down on himself. He makes fun of himself and moves on. That's one of those things you have to do in baseball. If you focus on all the bad stuff, or all the scrutiny, it's going to be pretty tough. He wipes that away."
Sanchez recently chose to reactivate his Twitter account, where he interacts with fans -- or more frequently foes -- on a regular basis.
"Hate builds character," Sanchez said. "All that chirping and all the stuff that people say on Twitter, it thickens your skin. My skin was thick enough to begin with, with all the things that I've been through."
Michael Sanserino: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1722 or on Twitter @msanserino.