Slimmed-down Sandoval finding his stride at plate

A boy in a panda hat hollered from a corner above the dugout to
greet Pablo Sandoval as the San Francisco slugger made his way out
for batting practice.

Sandoval acknowledged the young fan with a smile and wave, then
quickly got in line to take his pregame cuts. He chatted up hitting
coach Hensley Meulens behind the cage and bumped fists with
teammate Aubrey Huff. The free-swinging Sandoval made solid contact
on several balls in a row, then jumped with an ”Oh, gee!” after a
high popup.

No longer the stressed-out, pressing third baseman he was a year
ago for the Giants while fighting significant weight gain and a
loss of confidence, Sandoval is nearly 40 pounds lighter and has a
spring in his step once again.

And, more importantly for the struggling World Series champions,
he’s got some serious pop in his bat. Sandoval’s five home runs are
his most ever in April and he is hitting .319 with 13 RBIs nearly a
month into his third full big league season.

Sandoval isn’t ready to evaluate himself at this stage, or even
say that he is encouraged by his strides so far.

”Too soon,” he said.

While others notice a big difference in his fit physique and
mighty swing, Sandoval is cautious about getting too excited about
a quick start in April. Last year, he batted .368 over the opening
month only to finish at .268 with just 13 home runs and 63
RBIs.

Sandoval hit .307 in April in ’09, when he finished up at .330
with 25 homers and 90 RBIs. He was in the hunt for the NL batting
title and among the last players left off the NL All-Star team.

Yet Sandoval has been a bright spot during a tough stretch for
the Giants (10-11), who begin a 10-game East Coast road trip
Tuesday at Pittsburgh, part of a span with 16 of 19 games away from
AT&T Park. San Francisco was swept at home by Atlanta over the
weekend.

”Right now I feel great. I’m hitting the ball well
right-handed. I’m just trying to be more patient at home plate.
It’s just one month,” Sandoval said. ”This just started. You have
to see after half of the season. I feel more comfortable and more
patient. That’s one of those things I didn’t have before.”

The switch-hitter is in top shape at last following a rigorous
offseason regimen featuring regular hill sprints in Arizona. Others
have noticed, too.

”His body looks awesome,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said.
”And, why not, for the longevity of his career? He’s scary
offensively. Physically, he’s looking good. He’s always been an
athletic guy.”

While still not quite his former carefree, happy-go-lucky and
outgoing self, Sandoval has made progress in so many ways to grow
up at all of age 24. Hearing general manager Brian Sabean and
skipper Bruce Bochy say at the end of last season he’d have to get
lean or he might be headed for the minor leagues provided the very
wake-up call this suddenly sluggish ”Kung Fu Panda” so
desperately needed.

”He’s a different player – defensively, offensively. With him
getting in the type of condition that he’s gotten himself in, he’s
back to being who we knew a couple years ago,” Bochy said. ”We
talked on the off day and he said: ‘I can’t believe I let myself
get that heavy. It’s not going to happen again.’ He’s got so much
energy, too. This game’s hard enough to play when you’re in great
shape. You carry an extra 30 pounds or whatever and this game is
really tough.”

The struggles were never only about his ballooning weight last
year. There was a bitter divorce back home in Venezuela and a
custody battle for his young daughter. All of that took its toll –
and it showed all over Sandoval, from his hefty middle to his
frustrated face.

”It’s mental,” he said. ”When you have your confidence back
all is going to be well. No matter if you have a bad game, you’re
going to feel great because you’re playing hard and working hard.
Those are the things when you have your confidence.”

He thinks back on all those excruciating offseason workouts and
knows the pain – and the throwing up – were well worth it. Sandoval
worked with ex-Barry Bonds trainer Greg Oliver and also received
running tips from former Olympic decathlete Dan O’Brien.

The improved form shows in Sandoval’s strides when his knees
come up higher as he rounds the bases with relative ease, even at
about 240 pounds. He knows he is faster and more effective at the
plate and at third base. Sandoval committed 13 errors last season
and grounded into an NL-high 26 double plays.

”For three months I did that and was working hard,” he said of
his winter routine. ”One day, you know something is going to
happen. You have to prepare yourself by working hard to be in this
situation and being better. I wanted to change my career and be
better and better.”

Sandoval’s slim-down has helped his range at third. Bench coach
Ron Wotus has seen him make more athletic plays deeper in the field
and also hustle in to cover bunts. In an exhibition game against
the Athletics last month, Sandoval chased down a tough foul popup
by Hideki Matsui in front of the Giants’ bullpen mound.

”He’s always worked hard,” Wotus said. ”But losing the extra
weight has put him in position to be a much better defender. That’s
the bottom line.”