Freddy or not, here comes last leg of batting race

Sanchez still swinging hot bat, but how important is title to him?

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Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Third baseman Freddy Sanchez is six weeks away from becoming the Pirates' 25th batting champion.
Click photo for larger image.
Looking ahead

Today: Pirates (Ian Snell, 10-8) vs. Cincinnati Reds (Chris Michalak, 1-0), 7:10 p.m.

Where: Great American Ball Park, Cincinnati.

TV, Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, KDKA-AM, Pirates Radio Network.

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It is a Tuesday afternoon in Houston, and Freddy Sanchez is bouncing about the visitors' clubhouse inside Minute Maid Park. He has a hello for everyone he sees, a smile for all who acknowledge him.

And, invariably with each encounter, a favor to ask.

"Got any hits for me? I could use a hit."

He is not entirely joking, it would seem. He has gone all of 10 hitless at-bats, and it is driving him buggy.

For some hitters, 0 for 10 means a bad doubleheader. For Sanchez, it spells disaster.

That night, the hits return. The Pirates squeeze out only four against the Astros in a 4-1 loss and seldom achieve solid contact, but Sanchez accounts for half that total with a line-drive single to center and a double to right.

So long, slump.

"Amazing, isn't he?" manager Jim Tracy would say that night. "Nothing stops him."

That sparked Sanchez's ongoing nine-game hitting streak that has kept his season average atop the National League at .346 and, maybe most important, kept him sane.

"I feel like I should get a hit every time up there," he says. "That's what I want every time."

And not for the reason one might think.

"The batting title?" he replies to a question as if insulted. "No, that's not it at all. As far as I'm concerned, our team is playing some decent baseball in the second half, and that's what's most important to me. I want to go out there and get my hits so we have a better chance of winning."

Does he want it?

The temptation is to roll the eyes when an athlete says such things. Perhaps aware of that, Sanchez makes the point more emphatically when asked if the batting title is important to him.

"It's not. It's just not!" he answers with voice rising but smile intact. "Why should it be important? Tell me that. I don't understand that."

He is reminded that no member of the Pirates has won one since Bill Madlock in 1983. He is told that he could add to a franchise legacy in which nearly a quarter of all batting titles won that century -- 24 in all, eight by Honus Wagner -- belonged to Pittsburgh. He hears other names such as Wade Boggs, Rod Carew ...

"OK, I understand all that. I know what it means. But it comes to a point where you can only control half of what goes on. It's not something I'm really shooting for."

And how would he feel if he won it?

"If it happens, I'll just say that's great. It'd be wonderful. But it's not something where I'm thinking about winning a batting title when I go out there."

His coaches and teammates back him firmly on that.

"You're not exactly looking at a selfish ballplayer," first base coach John Shelby says. "For a guy who's supposed to be worried about the batting title ... well, he isn't worried."

Shelby cites a sequence Monday at PNC Park, where the Pirates had men on first and second, nobody out. Golden opportunity to crush a pitch right down the pipe.

Sanchez squared to bunt and placed a perfect sacrifice, drawing polite applause from the 16,279 on hand but also, no doubt, prompting many to wonder why it happened.

"That's what we were thinking," Shelby says. "I went into the dugout and found out he did it on his own."

"I shook my head, too," Tracy says. "But that's just how Freddy thinks. With him, it's team first."

Shortstop Jack Wilson, Sanchez's best friend on the team, confirms the batting title is far from becoming all-consuming. Still, just to be sure, he pulled Sanchez aside two weekends ago in Chicago, just after the last game of that 0-for-10 catastrophe.

"Freddy was furious that day, just because he wasn't getting hits," Wilson recalls. "Well, one of the things I reminded him about his goals coming into the season. You wanted to establish yourself as a major-league starter? You did that. You wanted to show you could play three infield positions? You did that. You wanted to hit .300? OK, well, unless you swing a Wiffle bat the rest of the season, you're going to do that, too. There's nothing to worry about."

Sanchez has, indeed, come a long way.

From a kid with a club foot, told by doctors as a young child he might not walk.

From an 11th-round draft pick by Boston, signed to a $1,000 signing bonus, then trapped behind Nomar Garciaparra on the Red Sox's depth chart.

From a year and a half of waiting out a relentless ankle injury that kept him from playing for the Pirates.

From learning in December that the team had signed Joe Randa to take his spot.

From opening April on the bench, then limited to seven starts in the first 24 games.

It was Tracy who kept him there, and it was Tracy who made him an everyday player once he noticed that .360-plus average simply was not going away.

Now, he is Sanchez's most unabashed supporter.

"Give the player the credit," Tracy says. "You saw where he was at the beginning of the year, how he carried himself, how he never complained. He's the one who put himself in the position he's in right now, and I couldn't be happier for someone like that to have a chance like this."

Whether Sanchez wants the batting title or not, Tracy is making no secret of how much he wants it.

Well, little secret, anyway.

On the day after the All-Star break, Tracy wrote Sanchez's name in the No. 3 spot of the lineup, rather than fifth or sixth where he had spent much of the first half with little protection. Now, Jason Bay would have his back.

Coincidence?

Tracy grins.

"This could be something very special."

How does he do it?

A Sanchez batting title might represent a great defeat for baseball talent evaluators and instructors everywhere. And that is because they cannot pinpoint what he does at the plate.

   
MINOR-LEAGUE REPORT
Thursday's results

INDIANAPOLIS (67-58) lost to Charlotte, 4-3, in 10 innings. RHP Marty McLeary (2-4, 2.99) allowed one run and seven hits in seven innings. RHP Jesse Chavez (5.59) allowed one run in 1 1/3 innings of relief. RHP Brian Rogers (0.00) pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings, throwing 18 of 24 pitches for strikes. CF Vic Buttler (.154) went 1 for 5 with a double and a steal.

ALTOONA (68-53) was off.

LYNCHBURG (52-70) lost to Myrtle Beach, 7-3. RHP Clayton Hamilton (4-5, 4.34) allowed four runs on a hit and three walks without recording an out. RHP Yoann Torrealba (4.29) pitched five scoreless innings of relief. LF Mike Carlin (.274) went 3 for 5 with two doubles.

HICKORY (60-62) lost at West Virginia, 7-1. RHP Dustin Craig (1-1, 3.14) allowed two runs in six innings. 2B Shelby Ford (.261) went 3 for 4 with a double.

WILLIAMSPORT (18-35) won at Vermont, 6-1. LHP Mike Felix (1-4, 2.09) allowed one unearned run in four innings. CF Alex Presley (.219) went 2 for 4 with his second home run and three RBIs.

   

Listen to Pirates hitting coach Jeff Manto:

"Freddy has such a simplistic style of hitting. There's nothing really to mess with, like a rhythm or form. It's all in his head. It's almost too simple."

Too simple?

"Well, I know it's a cliche to say he does things you can't teach. But Freddy really does things you can't teach."

Even Tracy, seemingly able to break down any baseball minutiae, punts on Sanchez:

"Somehow, someway, he gets the head of the bat on the ball."

Some hitters -- the Pirates' Nate McLouth, for example -- have ultra-mechanical swings. And theirs tend to be most pleasing to the eye of those inside the game. There is a plan, a precision, a consistent path that is followed. Even when hitters such as McLouth strike out, the elegant follow-through can be a beautiful thing.

Sanchez, in contrast, is the prodigy student who aces the algebra test without opening the book. He can pull an inside pitch with a two-fisted tomahawk or lunge outside like Manny Sanguillen to drop a cheesy single into shallow right.

Manto, pressed for more analysis, offers an attempt:

"Freddy has what we call an inside-outside swing. That's the basis for what he does. Other hitters do that. But from there, his bat can take all kinds of different routes to the ball. Whatever it takes."

The end result?

"Bat meets ball."

That sounds like the sole extent to which Sanchez analyzes it.

"All I'm trying to do is hit it here," he says, pointing to the head of the bat. "It's the hand-eye coordination. That's how it's always been for me. I've just always been able to do it. However I swing at it, that's how I swing. Wherever it goes, it goes."

It tends to go everywhere. Sanchez's machine-gun spray of a hit chart shows a virtually even distribution from left field to center to right, six beaten out in the infield, five over the fence.

As a result, as Manto points out, opposing pitchers are not the only ones guessing:

"How'd you like to have to position your fielders against him?"

Other matchup issues abound, if only because Sanchez has yet to show any obvious shortcoming.

He seldom is patient, but he bats .406 when swinging at the first pitch.

He falls behind too much, but he bats an above-average .233 with an 0-2 count and has struck out only 34 times.

He is .457 against left-handers, best in the majors, and .313 against righties.

He is .314 with bases empty, .400 with men in scoring position.

Got any other ideas?

And, for all the surprise that has accompanied his breakout year, these two most basic numbers show why none of this should be considered a fluke: His career average as a minor-leaguer was .318. As a major-leaguer, since joining the Pirates at the start of last season, it is .309.

Can he win it?

Sanchez knows the names. Assuming he wants to, he cannot escape them.

There is Miguel Cabrera, right behind him.

And Chipper Jones, fresh off a 4-for-5, three-home-run outburst Monday.

And Garciaparra, still shadowing him in a way.

Oh, yeah, and Albert Pujols, too.

Keep an eye on this one, as well: Atlanta's 22-year-old catcher, Brian McCann, has a .343 average that is close to Sanchez's, but he does not yet have the required 3.1 at-bats per his team's games. He should achieve that by season's end.

Sanchez laughs when asked to identify the prime threat.

"Are you kidding me? Look at these guys. Miguel Cabrera. Unbelievable player. Chipper, too. Pujols. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that any of those guys can win it with a month and a half left. That's a lot of baseball."

Sanchez has some factors working against him:

Twenty of the Pirates' remaining 41 games are against four pitching staffs that rank among the league's top six in lowest opponent's batting averages. That includes seven meetings with Houston.

The Bay protection plan has not worked out as well as hoped. Because Bay is batting .242 with runners in scoring position, managers have intentionally walked Sanchez four times since the break.

Only 13 batting champions in history have come from a last-place team.

He never has been involved in such a race, where leader lists are old hat for most of the rest.

On the other hand:

His name has been atop the leaders since July 3, so he has had some time to get comfortable there.

No hitter has been more slump-proof. Since becoming an everyday player May 2, Sanchez has not gone more than two games without a hit. And he has topped .300 each month.

Sanchez's .394 mark at PNC Park, where he will play 19 games, is 20 points higher than anyone else on his home field.

He has an excellent chance to sustain his spot this weekend in Cincinnati. He has tortured the Reds like no other opponent -- 13 for 22 -- and will see them in the season's final three games, too.

And when that closing weekend ends ...

"Freddy can be the batting champion," Wilson says without hesitation. "No doubt in my mind. He just needs to be Freddy. Don't read the paper. Don't watch the highlight shows. Just relax, and keep having fun."

That is the plan, according to Sanchez.

So long as those hits keep coming.

"The way I see my goal right now is this: Whether I'm at .360 or .310 and I drop a little bit, I don't like that. I want to stay where I am. Once I set the bar for myself somewhere, that's where I want to stay. Maybe someday I'll realize that's not the bar, not where I'm supposed to be. But not right now."


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


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