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.”