BRADENTON, Fla. — Tony Sanchez swings open the door to the Pirates’ McKechnie Field clubhouse early Friday morning, paces to the bulletin board, noting camp activities for the next few days, and sees his name in Saturday’s lineup against the Twins.
So far, routine. The catching prospect has been getting a lot of action, Russell Martin’s sore shoulder opening wider his window of opportunity.
Then Sanchez lowers his eyes to see that day’s starting pitcher, and he gulps — A.J. Burnett, veteran ace.
“I better get a good night’s sleep, and have my ‘A’ game tomorrow,” Sanchez tells himself. “Because first impressions are everything. It’s just another ballgame, he needs a catcher and I’ve done this my whole life. But that’s a guy you want to impress.”
On Saturday morning, Burnett goes out of his way to sidle up to Sanchez in the locker room.
“Hey, call your game,” Burnett tells the 24-year-old catcher. “I’m following you. You lead me through this. I’m really intense on the mound. That’s just my shtick, so don’t worry about it, it’s nothing against you, just what I do. I want you to have fun, be relaxed.”
And Burnett walks off. Someone probably has to tell Sanchez to pick up his jaw.
“For him to come up to me and say that … it made it a whole lot easier. It helped me breathe a little bit, calm my nerves about wanting to leave a good impression in his mind.”
Sanchez almost left an impression of a baseball on Burnett’s head. The pitcher made his final warmup delivery prior to the top of the first, Sanchez leaped out of his crouch for the perfunctory toss down to second base — and nearly beaned Burnett, who typically doesn’t wander far off the rubber after completing his warm-ups.
Back in the dugout after that first inning, Sanchez intercepted Burnett. `
“Good job, good job,” Sanchez said enthusiastically. “Can you do me one favor, please?”
“Hey, that was a good first inning. What do you want?” Burnett comes back with.
“Can you get out of the way a little bit when I’m throwing?”
By the end of his third-inning warm-ups, Burnett is practically running off the mound.
Anything to accommodate the kid Sanchez, who is doing a terrific job on Burnett’s curveballs that dive into the dirt, and on adjusting to the two distinctly different fastballs he throws — the four-seamer, just hard, and the two-seamer, a few miles per hour slower with a hard sink.
“I was comfortable catching his fastball, regardless of whether he threw a two-seamer or four-seamer,” Sanchez recalled. “He’s probably one of the toughest guys I’ve had to do that with — [Jared] Hughes and [Chris] Leroux are primarily sinkerball pitchers, so you’re expecting the sink — but that’s one of the things I pride myself on. With A.J., it could be a 95-mile four-seamer or a 93-mile sinker with a foot of [movement].”
Not a single one gets past Sanchez. Pretty soon, he has a cheering section from an unlikely source.
“After every block, I could hear A.J. cheering my name from the mound,” Sanchez said. “That’s the kinda thing that fires me up. For a guy who’s as established as he is to cheer me on, when all I’m doing is my job, is huge for my confidence.”
“He’s good to work with,” Burnett said. “A lot of catchers can’t do the four-seam, two-seam thing without calling for it on their own. I love catchers who don’t care which one you throw, who are ready for either one. That’s huge for a pitcher.”
“One of the things I’ve worked so hard on is not having to call sinker or four-seam,” Sanchez said. “That allowed [Burnett] to feel more comfortable.”
The synergy does not escape manager Clint Hurdle’s attention.
“Tony’s ball-blocking ability has always been there,” Hurdle said. “He’s got a very strong arm. He’s taken ownership of calling a game. We’ve been impressed with all facets of his game. We knew it was going to be a good opportunity for him, catching more games and catching more frontline guys with Russell being down.”
“This is my fourth camp, and I’ve played more this year than in the other three combined,” Sanchez said. “You never want to see somebody go down but, yes, I would definitely say I took advantage of the opportunity that gave me.”
Realistically, with Martin and Michael McKenry locked in as the Bucs’ 2013 catching tandem, that is all Sanchez wanted out of Spring Training — to continue rebuilding his reputation, a project put in motion in 2012. To convince team brass to dust off the projections when they made him a first-round Draft choice — the No. 4 pick — in 2009. To leave a good impression.
“Now with Martin coming back and us getting closer to the season, I understand my playing time will be limited and my time here at big league camp is coming to an end,” Sanchez said. “But I feel really strong about what I did here, and I’ll take that into Minor League camp. My only priority was to leave a good impression in the staff’s mind.”
The manager and coaching staff are not the only ones who will remember Sanchez.
“He did a great job,” said the ace of the pitching staff, Burnett. “I’m proud to have worked with him.”
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.