Gaby Sanchez turning on power with strong start for Pirates

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- When the 2012 season ended, Gaby Sanchez gave himself only one week off. Then, he went to work.

If sweating hard and lifting weights is a luxury, it is one he couldn't afford the previous offseason as he had arthroscopic knee surgery to repair a damaged patella tendon.

"Last year I couldn't lift my legs," he said. "I couldn't really do anything power-wise because I had the knee surgery, so I really didn't start working out. And when I did, it wasn't heavyweight. It was lightweight, just trying to get the leg not hurting again."

Sanchez's power numbers dived last season, when his combined OPS (on-base plus slugging) between stops in Miami and Pittsburgh was .620 -- the lowest of his career.

"I wasn't strong anywhere on my lower half," he said. "That's where I hit from -- I hit from my lower half. When that's not feeling right, nothing seems to go into place."

The Pirates acquired Sanchez at the trade deadline from the Miami Marlins. At the time, Sanchez was hitting .202. After joining the Pirates, his fortunes hadn't changed much.

He started his tenure in Pittsburgh going 0 for 13 with runners in scoring position before finally converting Sept. 2 -- more than a month after the trade.

"He played from behind last year," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "He had a late-November surgery on a knee, played catch-up for most of the year. I don't think he got in real good baseball shape until about a month in with us."

Now, it appears Sanchez has his sea legs under him.

Sanchez has had one of the strongest starts of any Pirate in spring training. He is hitting .417 and crushed two home runs in a Grapefruit League game over the weekend, two no-doubters that reminded Hurdle of the success Sanchez had in Miami -- where he was fourth in rookie of the year voting in 2010 and an All-Star in 2011.

Sanchez will platoon at first base with Garrett Jones, but he also has spent time this spring workout out at third base. But if Sanchez plays well enough, he will play on a consistent basis; Hurdle has been creative in the past to find ways to keep a hot bat on the field.

He credits his offseason conditioning plan that aggressively targeted his legs -- a source of power for any baseball player -- for fueling his hot start. He spent nearly two months lifting weights before picking up a bat for the first time this offseason.

"Sometimes you have to just forget about everything and basically reboot," Sanchez said.

Sanchez and Jay Bell, hired as Pirates hitting coach this offseason, connected in December around the same time Sanchez was in Pittsburgh for the Pirates Caravan. Bell stressed Sanchez's mentality -- an approach he took with most players when he first met them.

"The guys that end up having a degree of success are the guys that understand how to beat that guy on the mound mentally," Bell said.

Sanchez said he and Bell have a good working relationship because they embrace the same approach at the plate -- look for a fastball and drive it toward right-center field.

He also worked this offseason with University of Miami assistant baseball coach Lou Palmisano.

But even though Sanchez took a few months before he picked up a bat for the first time this offseason, he said he felt comfortable swinging all season long.

So far this spring, he has made opposing pitchers equally uncomfortable.

Phillies one-hit Pirates

A.J. Burnett allowed four runs on four hits in 1 1/3 innings in his second start of the spring, a 5-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies Monday at McKechnie Field.

Burnett threw his curveball, but only with two strikes. He said though he preferred better results, he wasn't concerned about the outing.

"I'm not happy with it, but I also know it's about getting your work in and getting your pitch count up," Burnett said. "I've done this long enough to know that it's spring training, these numbers don't count, but at the same time you want to do well."

The Pirates had only one hit in the game, a double by Travis Snider in the first inning.

Buried treasure

Jeff Karstens (biceps tightness) will throw two innings of live batting practice today at Pirate City.

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Bill Brink contributed to this report. Michael Sanserino: and Twitter @msanserino. First Published March 5, 2013 5:00 AM


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