Cook: Has Sanchez found his comfort zone?

Has Sanchez finally found comfort zone?

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You're right, it is hard to wrap your arms around the fact the Pirates banged 18 hits in a 13-2 win against the Atlanta Braves yesterday. I watched with my own eyes and still can't believe it. Only a night earlier, after being convinced that Braves starter Chuck James would finish the job after cruising into the seventh inning with a no-hitter, I was ready to suggest that the gem shouldn't really count against such weak competition.

But all of those unexpected hits and runs weren't the most amazing part of a wonderful Mother's Day at PNC Park. This took that prize: Freddy Sanchez drove in a run for the first time in three weeks.

That's 2006 National League batting champion Freddy Sanchez.

The same Sanchez who drove in 85 runs last season despite hitting just six home runs.

The same Sanchez who was one of the game's best clutch players a year ago with a .386 batting average with runners in scoring position.

Three weeks!

"Geez, has it really been that long?" Sanchez asked. "I knew it had been awhile, but that long?"

An eternity, actually.

A darned eternity for a Pirates' team that has been baseball's worst offensive team as the season pushes hard toward the quarter-pole.

"I take total responsibility for that," Sanchez said, admirably.

You're right again, Sanchez would have to fight off a lot of teammates -- notably Adam LaRoche and Ronny Paulino -- to get his hands on the clubhouse sword on which to impale himself. But he did have a legitimate point. He has been awful.

A .250 hitter going into yesterday.

A .136 average with runners in scoring position.

Four RBIs.

"When the 3-hole hitter isn't getting the job done, I think it takes a toll on the rest of the team," Sanchez said. "That's why I had no problem with [manager Jim Tracy] taking me out of there. I didn't deserve to be there. He had to go with Jason Bay or Ryan Doumit or anybody's who hot because I wasn't getting the job done."

That's why the game yesterday seemed a little more significant than an ordinary win in the long season. Tracy had Sanchez back in the No. 3 slot and Sanchez made the Braves pay instead of the Pirates. He singled in a run in the first inning, then had run-scoring singles in the fourth and sixth innings. He still doesn't look like that .344 hitter from a year ago, but this might have been a big step in that direction.

"I think that batting title has been a part of Freddy's problem, to be honest," Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson said. "He thinks he should be that guy every game. It doesn't work that way in baseball. This really is the first time he's failed offensively. It's been hard on him."

It didn't help that Sanchez missed most of spring training and the first five games of the season because of a knee injury. His hitting is based on rhythm and timing, neither of which satisfies him yet. He says he has tweaked just about everything, from his stance to his swing to his hitting approach, a startling admission from a batting champion. He still complains of not seeing the ball as well as he'd like but said he's starting to feel better at the plate. The numbers support him; he has hit safely in 12 of his past 13 games, a .322 average in that stretch.

"You know a slump isn't going to last forever for a guy as good as he is," Wilson said.

In a sad way, an unfortunate ankle injury yesterday to teammate Jose Bautista could help Sanchez's hitting take off even more because it could mean Sanchez going back to third base. Sanchez did a terrific job there last season, but Tracy moved him to second in the spring when he decided to go with Bautista at third base instead of Jose Castillo at second base. Sanchez doesn't appear nearly as comfortable at second and certainly hasn't been as effective.

He says his position doesn't matter to him, but he wouldn't be human if the extra thinking that second base involves for him didn't touch his hitting at least peripherally.

Bautista had to leave in the sixth inning after his left ankle rolled on him when he slid into home plate. Initially, the injury brought back gruesome memories of Jason Kendall's ankle dislocation on another holiday -- the Fourth of July -- in 1999 and, for you other old-timers like me, Rennie Stennett's career-damaging ankle injury on a slide into second base in 1977. The Pirates said X-rays on Bautista's ankle showed no broken bones, but, the way he limped out of the clubhouse, it wouldn't be shocking if he goes on the disabled list today.

"I hope he's not out long because he's been unbelievable at third base," Sanchez said.

No matter where he plays, Sanchez said, he has still got to keep working to find his comfort level at the plate.

It's nice to think he'll get there soon, not to mention maybe drive in his next run some time before Father's Day.

Ron Cook can be reached at .


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