Jeff Locke was not surprised a few days ago to turn around and see
Tony Sanchez standing in the Pirates' clubhouse.
"He's been everywhere that I've been -- Lynchburg, Bradenton, Altoona, Indianapolis," Locke said, ticking off stops in the minor league system. "He's always been there for me as a catcher. What else can a pitcher ask for?"
Locke isn't the only pitcher with whom Sanchez has worked closely in the minors. He has caught games -- not merely spring training tuneups -- for nine of the 12 pitchers on the active roster, including seven this season at Triple-A Indianapolis. The only exceptions are relievers Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon and Tony Watson.
Sanchez got to catch Charlie Morton, Francisco Liriano and Jeanmar Gomez during injury rehab outings.
That hands-on experience will pay dividends once Sanchez begins catching games at the major league level.
"Anytime you have a chance to work with somebody, no matter what it is, whether they're playing behind you (on the field) or you're throwing to them, it's a positive thing," Morton said. "But it's especially true for a pitcher and a catcher. That's a crucial relationship. You want to be able to trust who's back there and know that he has as good of an idea about what's going on as you do. It's a huge plus."
Morton was traded to the Pirates in 2009, the year the Pirates drafted Sanchez in the first round. They never played together until this year, when Morton made three starts for Indy while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.
Coming back from reconstructive elbow surgery is a physical and mental grind. Morton appreciated the honest, unbiased feedback he got from Sanchez, who gauged every pitch.
"He wasn't back there thinking, 'Wow, this is better than it was before' or 'This isn't as good as it was before.' It's really kind of a clean slate," Morton said. "When I was throwing to him, I didn't feel like there was any sort of expectation. It was just professional: 'What you've got today is what you've got, and we're going to work with that.' I think that's great."
When Sanchez arrived at the clubhouse last week in Anaheim, Morton greeted him at the door with a hug and carried his bags to his locker.
"I was like, 'No, Charlie. Please don't do that,' " Sanchez said, laughing.
The next-to-last game Sanchez caught before his call-up was Gomez's rehab start June 19.
"It was like we were on the same page the entire time," Sanchez said. "He didn't shake me off once, and we went five innings with no hits. I was proud of that. Catching Charlie, Francisco, Gomez, (Brandon) Cumpton, (Gerrit) Cole ... I know a lot of these guys. It's only going to help me."
It helps the pitchers, too. Locke said building a strong rapport with Sanchez in the minors enabled him to fine-tune his skills.
"You can't put a ball past him," Locke said. "Last year, when he was catching, I gained a lot of confidence throwing breaking pitches in the dirt in situations when there was a man on second or even third, less than two outs, stuff like that. If you don't have 100 percent confidence and trust in that guy (catching), there might be a pitch you shy away from a little bit or you might try to be too perfect and hang it. I never had to worry about that with Tony. Just drop that thing on the plate, and he'll chest it up."
Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.
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