June 2011

Catching Up On Hector Sanchez

By: Ellen Ward

Ever since Buster Posey’s season ending injury, the San Francisco Giants have had a tough time fully replacing their every day catcher. A couple weeks after Posey went down, catcher Hector Sanchez was promoted from High-A San Jose all the way to Triple-A Fresno. This sudden promotion sparked many questions and speculation about whether or not the Giants were grooming this young catcher to perform on a bigger stage.

With a pitching rotation that the World Champion lean on, it is only fitting that a top-notch catcher should be calling the pitches and blocking the plate. Posey was the Giants top prospect in 2010, and he found his way to San Francisco on May 28th of that year and became the compliment to the pitching staff. Posey spent the first few weeks at first base while the Giants evaluated their options. In the end they traded veteran catcher, Bengie Molina to the Texas Rangers and Posey became the Giants starting catcher and prized possession.

Buster Posey catching for the Fresno Grizzlies in April of 2010

A year ago, the Giants fan base wouldn’t dare think that a number of players would be doomed to the disabled list, but that is exactly where half of the World Series roster ended up by mid-May. The most devastating injury by far was Buster Posey’s shoulder-to-shoulder collision. He suffered season-ending injuries after Florida Marlins’ outfielder, Scott Cousins barreled into home plate in an extra innings game on May 25th at AT&T Park.

The Giants took action quickly, calling up Chris Stewart from Fresno, and moving backup catcher Eli Whiteside into the starting role. Both catchers are familiar with the pitching staff, but neither has come close to filling the vacant role Posey has left. It is rumored that the Giants are looking for other options to fill the position, and the recent promotion of Hector Sanchez from High-A San Jose to Fresno has provoked quite a buzz.

 This is a huge step for him,” manager Steve Decker comments on the arrival of Sanchez. “We need to make this kid a complete guy.”

There is a whirlwind of speculation about this young catcher but no one seems to know much about him. Sanchez is a 21 year-old from Maracay, Venezuela. He signed with the Giants at the green age of 16 in 2007, and played in the Dominican Summer League for two years.

In his second year of professional baseball, he hit .348, with 63 RBI and went 72-for-207. The next year, Sanchez began playing in the Arizona Rookie League, still catching and still producing runs. He hit a solid .299, and hit safely 35 times in 33 games. In 2010, he played at Low-A Augusta, where he batted .274, went yard five times, and had 31 RBI.

The Giants obviously saw potentional in Sanchez because he was a non-roster invitee for Spring Training in 2011. He spent a majority of camp with the defending World Champions, before being assigned to High-A San Jose.

“He got a lot of playing time because Whiteside got hurt in Spring Training”, points out Decker when asked how familiar Sanchez is with catching the Giants starting rotation.

Sanchez playing for the San Jose Giants. (Tony Medina)

In the Cal League, Sanchez tore it up in his first 43 games, batting .301, notching 19 multi-hit games, and hitting eight homers. Even more impressive is that he continued to be a RBI machine, notching 46 RBI in just 43 games. All of this work at the plate was done at the same time he was behind the plate guiding the Giants’ young arms, including top prospect Zach Wheeler. When Sanchez batted clean up for San Jose, he hit .319, and hit six of his eight home runs in the four slot. Sound familiar? Posey was the Giants permanent clean up hitter, and rotating players since his injury have filled that slot.

Sanchez was promoted from San Jose on June 9th, and played in his first Triple-A game on June 10th. He went 1-for-3 with a walk, and a RBI in his first game. He caught for veteran Shane Loux who gave up one earned run and fanned three batters in six innings of work. Sanchez’ has reached base safely in seven of his first nine games. He notched his first multi-hit game just six days into his Triple-A career, going 2-for-4, with a double and single, while plating two runs. He accomplished this at the same time as he was behind the plate calling a game for Cy-Young Award winner, Barry Zito in his third rehab start. Sanchez was the starting catcher in every single rehab start that Zito has pitched in, both games with San Jose and two more in Fresno.

“Sanchez called a great game and made it easy for me”, expressed starting pitcher, Andrew Kown after he threw six innings of no-hit ball to beat the Sacramento River Cats on June 19th.

On the surface Sanchez is a RBI machine based off his offensive numbers alone, and he has the advantage of being a switch hitter at the plate. The real question is, can he catch a starting rotation that carried the Giants to the World Series?

“He is in a position to be called up,” says Decker when asked if he sees Sanchez making his major league debut this season. “They always say you’re one foul tip away from the big leagues.”

Decker, a former catcher who spent most of his career with Giants organization, coached Posey at the Triple-A level, and will continue to shape Sanchez until San Francisco calls upon him.

The Giants put trust in Posey at a young age, but it remains to be seen if they will do the same with the 21-year-old Sanchez. It might be too early to tell, but according to Bay Area reporters he is on the right track. If he keeps producing at and behind the plate, he may find himself in the Bay Area sooner than later.

Baseball, Barry, Been Good To Me

By: Noah Frank

When you’re just 28 years of age, as I am, it may seem naïve to suggest that any part of your life has come full circle. And yet, as spring has abandoned us for another scorching summer in Downtown Fresno, that is exactly the position I find myself in this week in regards to my professional life working in baseball.

My first baseball job came in 2001, when I served as the website intern for OaklandAthletics.com in the final season that it operated independently, prior to the league-wide acquisition of team sites by MLB.com. A week prior to being hired for the internship, I was just a recent high school graduate, sitting at Francsesco’s Italian restaurant on Hegenberger Road, a popular family-style joint just across Highway 880 from the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum. I was attending an Oakland A’s booster lunch, which featured a local media member (exactly whom, I have forgotten by now) and an up-and-coming A’s player, a young left-handed pitcher by the name of Barry Zito.

A then-23 year-old Zito charmed the crowd with his upbeat, friendly personality, fielding softball questions from the crowd of a couple hundred fans, most retired season ticket holders. As he answered queries about his hair, his favorite color and the guitar, my mother— a then-A’s fan, who had raised me as such before deserting the Green and Gold last summer for her childhood rooting interests across the Bay—  nudged me to ask a question of my own, a real one, that a ballplayer might appreciate.

Zito throws a bullpen on Tuesday at Chukchansi Park.

The summer before, I had attended Northwestern University’s National High School Institute Journalism Program in the northern Chicago suburb of Evanston. I spent five weeks focusing on sports journalism, and even wrote my major trend story about the league-wide increase in power numbers and how they might be related to smaller ballparks, more tightly-wound baseballs, or even (gulp) “supplements” of some sort. Sports Illustrated would publish nearly the identical story the final week of my program.

On one Saturday— July 22, 2000, to be exact— a friend of mine, also in the sports group of the program, grabbed me on my way out the door of my dorm room. This kid had grown up in Tucson, attending many Sidewinders games, the Diamondbacks affiliate, which has since moved to Reno and become the Aces. He had watched a young Athletics farmhand dazzle and baffle hitters with a knee-buckling curveball, and had been predicting great things for him as soon as the Oakland brass would pull him up to the East Bay. July 22nd was that day.

“The A’s just called up Zito, he’s starting today,” he said. “You’ve gotta watch this kid pitch.”

Based on his description of Zito’s successes in the “Coast League”, I agreed. I ditched my plans for wherever it was I was headed and sat down in front of a computer to watch one of the most primitive versions of ESPN’s Gameday to follow the progress. The A’s were playing the Angels that day in Oakland, and jumped out to an early 7-1 advantage. Zito was moving along well into the fifth inning, when he hit a spot of trouble. Facing Anaheim’s 9-1-2 to begin the frame, he sandwiched walks to Adam Kennedy and Benji Gil around a Darin Erstad single to load the bases with nobody out and the 3-4-5— Mo Vaughan, Tim Salmon and Garrett Anderson— coming up. All he did from there was strike out the side, finishing his five innings of work in style for his first Major League win.

That takes me back to Francesco’s, one year later, debating what to ask Mr. Zito. I decided to go for it, and described in detail exactly how that fifth inning of his Major League debut had gone down. I asked him what was running through his head, how he approached the situation, how it felt when it was all said and done. Most of the crowd was caught off-guard, but Zito just sat there and smiled, then gave an honest, thorough answer to the question. I came up afterward and we had a nice discussion about UC Santa Barbara, where he had attended for a year and where I was off to begin school at in the fall, and other non-baseball topics. We wished each other well, and went our separate ways.

A week later, I was hired by the A’s.

The Fresno sports press corps and Zito on Wednesday.

The first time I was assigned to collect post-game audio from the home clubhouse, I was instructed by one of my two bosses not to talk to the players while I was down there. Naturally, as soon as I stepped inside the door a spiky-haired Zito came strolling out from the showers and saw me.

“Hey, what are you doing here?” he asked, smiling. “Get over here.”

One quick glance at my dumbfounded boss and I was off, chatting it up with Zito, as I would from time to time throughout the season. He was friendly with me during that summer and once even invited me out for drinks with “Eric” and “Jason”. For those unfamiliar with the 2001 Oakland squad, that would be Eric Chavez and Jason Giambi. The thought alone was thrilling for a young A’s fan, but impracticle for an 18 year-old that looked more like a high school freshman at the time. I thanked him for the offer, but settled for the gesture, one that made a young, aspiring baseball executive feel at home.

Fast-forward 10 years, and here we are. While I’ve seen Zito in passing the past two Spring Trainings in Scottsdale, I’ve never really had a reason to speak with him, as he’s never been a Grizzly. But now, suddenly, here he is in Fresno as part of his Major League rehab as he fights his way off the Disabled List for the first time in his career. It was my duty to organize and monitor his press conference, and on Thursday I will have the chance to watch him start in person for the first time since he left the A’s following the 2006 season.

But there is another piece to this reunion story. My former boss in Oakland, the first of my baseball career, was none other than current Comcast SportsNet Bay Area personality Mychael Urban. Back then, he was the OaklandAthletics.com beat writer assigned to the A’s. As it turns out, Urban will be making the trek south to the Central Valley for Zito’s start, meaning I will fill out the press pass that will allow him in the park and sit next to him in the press box.

So in the end, I guess I could say my baseball life has come full circle this week in Fresno. After all, I might be more naïve to think that my past ever will intersect with my future more completely than it will on June 16th.

Panda Sighting in Fresno

By: Ellen Ward

Despite a good overall record, the defending World Champions have had a rough start to the 2011 season. They have lost key players to injuries, several of which have come through Fresno on rehab stints before returning to the Majors. After losing 30 pounds and finding his swing again in the off-season, the last place Pablo Sandoval thought he would end up would be on the disabled list. Just a month into the season, Sandoval fractured his right hand sliding into second base in a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and later received surgery to repair the broken bone. Sandoval used his recovery time wisely; working out constantly, and even took ground balls with his left hand.

Signing with the Giants in 2003, Sandoval quickly rose through the various levels within the organization. The Giants promoted him straight to the Majors from Double-A Connecticut, bypassing Triple-A Fresno completely. The infielder made his Major League debut with the Giants in 2008 after splitting time between High-A San Jose and Double-A Connecticut. Sandoval became an instant fan favorite, batting .345 in 2008 and quickly emerged as a key hitter in the lineup. He received his quirky nickname, Kung Fu Panda, from pitcher Barry Zito, on September 19th, 2008, when he jumped over a tag from catcher Danny Ardoin, against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Sandoval continued to dominate in 2009, batting .330 with 25 home runs, but fell off to just .268 with 13 home runs in 2010. In order to return to his earlier form, Sandoval took advantage of the 2010 off-season, losing 30 pounds over a three-month span. Before breaking his hand, Sandoval was batting .313, and led the team with five home runs in 24 games.

Now, Sandoval is finding his way back to San Francisco after being gone for five weeks. He is scheduled to start his rehab with San Jose before heading to Fresno for the first time in his major league career sometime this weekend. According to various Bay Area reporters the Giants would like him to play in at least five games before returning to San Francisco.

With this being Sandoval’s first time in Fresno, the community is already buzzing about the famous Kung Fu Panda’s debut at Chukchansi Park. To catch a glimpse of the Panda in action, be sure to get your tickets before they’re all gone. And don’t forget to pick up a fuzzy panda hat— you wouldn’t want to miss out on all the fun!

(Photo Credit: top: Lenny Ignelzi/AP; bottom: Associated Press)