TAMPA, Fla. -- Tony Sanchez is getting a lot of love -- from the people his bat hurts the most. This must be one of the unwritten rites of Spring Training: unconditional support.
Coming off McKechnie Field on Tuesday, Sanchez got a big hug from Jay Jackson -- off whom he had smacked a three-run homer a bit earlier in the Pirates' Black-Gold intrasquad game.
Shedding his catcher's gear in the locker room on Wednesday, Sanchez got the hug from Russell Martin, the Bucs' regular catcher who had had a quiet game against the Yankees before Sanchez took over to go 2-for-2, with another three-run home run.
Yet, the next hug Sanchez gets could be from Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister -- after informing him that he is being optioned to the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians.
The Pirates programmed Sanchez for a third year of Triple-A seasoning by swinging an early December trade with the Yankees for Chris Stewart. Two veterans in camp in an era teams do not carry three catchers sealed Sanchez's short-term fate.
"We are not going to carry three catchers," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle confirmed following Thursday's 8-2 Grapefruit League victory here over the Yankees.
"And that's fine," Sanchez said. "I've learned so much from Russell, just by watching and being around him. And now I get to have an eye on another defensively strong guy [Stewart]. They want me to have more development? OK, Indy is a great city and Pittsburgh is too cold in April and May, anyway.
"So, see you in June."
Sanchez may not have to wait that long. The Bucs may need only two catchers, but they also need one designated hitter for road Interleague series -- the first of which crops up on the schedule on April 29-30 in Baltimore. Coincidentally, that was the role in which Sanchez had made his big league debut last June.
Sanchez, possibly as a sign of things to come, was back in Thursday's lineup as the DH. He drilled a first-at-bat double that improved his perfect spring line to 5-for-5, including the 2-for-2 in Tuesday's practice game. He went hitless the next three at-bats, so Sanchez now has a Grapefruit League average of only .500.
"It's only a short window of time," Hurdle said of the likelihood of flipping the roster to add someone to DH in Interleague games, which now are scattered throughout the schedule. "But you always look to explore, and we thought enough of [Sanchez] last year to bring him up for that exact reason."
It wasn't extensive. More than the proverbial cup of coffee, so maybe a pot: In three separate stints, Sanchez got to make a dozen starts behind the plate and totaled 60 at-bats. It was, however, long enough to make Sanchez feel like he belonged, and to inspire the inner calm that could be responsible for this current torrid spring start.
"That was huge for my confidence," Sanchez said, "and for my mental state coming into this Spring Training. This is my fifth big league camp, and in the first four, I never had anything under my belt.
"Just knowing that I finally went to war with these guys. Albeit I was a small part of the first playoff team in 21 years, I was there, and the fact I finally put in some contribution to a real meaningful season meant a lot to me coming in."
The Pirates' No. 1 Draft pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft -- and the fourth overall selection -- is in a unique situation to have to face a sixth season mostly in the Minors. No. 1 Draft picks typically arrive far quicker -- Pedro Alvarez, drafted the year before Sanchez -- is entering his fifth season with the Bucs.
Yet, if it weren't for his No. 1 status, Sanchez may not have gotten the opportunity he did to rehabilitate his image after some regrettable early episodes in the Pittsburgh organization.
The process teaches you patience. It also teaches you to read the tea leaves: Martin is entering the second of his two-year, $17 million contract; he isn't likely to break his own record for the richest deal ever given a free agent by the Pirates.
Sanchez's time, thus, could come a year from now. By then, he will have paid a lot of dues for the opportunity.
"We work too hard not to reap the rewards of what we do," he said. "The fact that I put myself in this position to have this success early means a lot to me. Making this type of contact this early makes it even better.
"Anytime you feel comfortable enough to get the barrel on the ball like I have been doing, it's a good feeling."
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.