Don't worry about the sluggish start for Freddy Sanchez, who is working his way back from offseason shoulder surgery. The Pirates' second baseman has been down this road before. In the end, everything seems to work out.
"It's not unusual for me," Sanchez said. "It's frustrating. In this game, you can't just turn it on. I've done everything I can. You're always confident it will come. It's happened before. I'm a hitter."
Two years ago, Sanchez didn't even have a regular job until the first week in May, when third baseman Joe Randa hurt his foot. The Pirates plugged in Sanchez, a 28-year-old utilityman, and he responded by leading the league with a .344 batting average.
Coming off that signature season, Sanchez switched to second and batted an anemic .224 last April, hardly the way you'd expect the defending batting champion to open the year. Not to worry -- he hit .314 the rest of the way and finished at .304 for the season.
So first-year manager John Russell expects that, sooner or later, Sanchez will contribute to the Pirates attack.
"Freddy is going to hit," Russell said. "It's no secret -- he's hit his whole life. It's going to happen. It's inevitable."
The numbers certainly support Russell. An afterthought draft choice by the Boston Red Sox in 2000, Sanchez made steady progress through the team's farm system, consistently hitting .300. At the trading deadline in 2003, the Sox swapped Sanchez to Pittsburgh in a deal for pitcher Jeff Suppan.
The Pirates promised him a shot, but there was a problem -- Sanchez developed severe tendinitis in his right ankle just before the trade. Surgery followed, and it took most of the next year and a half for the infielder to regain full strength.
But he wouldn't go away.
"I had to keep believing in myself," Sanchez said.
In 2005, his first full Major League season, Sanchez batted .291 in 132 games, solid production for a team that didn't have much of it. His reward was a seat on the bench when the Pirates chose to sign free agent Randa to start at third base.
Sanchez's solution was to work harder.
"At a point, I was shaken," he said. "I felt I had not been given an opportunity. I was not even getting a chance. That changed, though. I accepted my role. I decided I would be the best utilityman I could be."
When Randa got hurt, Pittsburgh went back to Sanchez and he merely became the 11th Pirate to win a batting championship and the first to do it since Bill Madlock in 1983. His .344 average was the highest for a Pirate since Roberto Clemente hit .345 in 1969. He led the league with 53 doubles, and, since 1978, only Jack Wilson (201 in 2004) had more hits as a Pirate than Sanchez's 200.
It took until the last day of the season for Sanchez to nail down the batting title, beating out Miguel Cabrera, then with the Florida Marlins. Sanchez went 0-for-4 the night before but then had two hits in his first two at-bats in the last game to secure the title.
The 0-for-4 left Sanchez's batting crown claim in jeopardy.
"It was very nerve-wracking," he said. "After I got the first hit, it took a load off. Down the stretch, when it got closer and closer you think, 'This could happen.' It was an exciting time in my career and a fun experience."
It was a crowning achievement for Sanchez, who came a long way to claim it. Born with a deformed foot, he underwent surgery as an infant, and doctors thought he might never be able to walk. There was a lengthy rehabilitation, but Sanchez worked hard to overcome the disability.
Now those days are a distant memory. And soon, Sanchez hopes to put that slow start to 2008 in his rearview mirror as well.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.