Pablo Sandoval looks more like a panda than a ballplayer. Maybe that’s why fans of the San Francisco Giants hung the nickname “Kung Fu Panda” on him during his tenure in the Bay Area.
Remarkably, the Panda is still playing in the big leagues – nine years after his three-homer game in the World Series opener earned him MVP honors for the whole set.
Politely put, Sandoval throws his weight around.
He’s generously listed at 5-10 and 265 pounds but is certainly more. But he can still get around on a fastball.
At age 34, Pablo signed a minor-league contract with the Braves, who added him late last season as a pinch-hitter and good-luck charm for a postseason run that almost led to the World Series.
Though he once earned $17 million in a single season, the switch-hitting slugger came to camp in North Port, FL on a make-good, million-dollar contract.
He wasted little time in allowing Atlanta to realize that investment.
He celebrated Jackie Robinson Day Thursday with his third – repeat third – pinch-homer of the young season. He thus became the first man in Braves franchise history to hammer three home runs as a pinch-hitter in the opening month of the season.
His homer turned a 5-3 Braves deficit into a 6-5 lead in a game they eventually won, 6-5, snapping an uncharacteristic four-game losing streak.
Now he’s a serious threat to tie or top the record for pinch-homers in a season; Dave Hansen and Craig Wilson share it at seven each.
Sandoval showed an ability to produce power in the pinch in 2019, the last full season. In his second stint with San Francisco, he hit .375 as a pinch-hitter with 10 extra-base hits, including two homers, and a 1.067 OPS (on-base plus slugging) in 50 at-bats in the role.
A two-time All-Star, Sandoval can play either infield corner. But he’s a liability on the bases, as he proved earlier this week by getting thrown out while trying to advance from second to third on a fly ball.
In the majors since 2008, he’s played for the Giants, Red Sox, and Braves and had his share of memorable moments:
- He took advantage of Denver’s Alpine air to hit for the cycle at Coors Field on Sept. 15, 2011.
- In the first inning of the 2012 All-Star Game, which he started at third base for the National League, he hit a Justin Verlander pitch for the first bases-loaded triple in the history of the Midsummer Classic.
- Two of his three homers in the first game of the World Series that year came at Verlander’s expense. The only other players with three-homer Series games were Babe Ruth (twice), Reggie Jackson, and Albert Pujols.
- Sandoval enjoyed the second three-homer game of his career, at San Diego on Sept. 4, 2013.
As big as he is, it’s not surprising that Sandoval has suffered every conceivable injury. He’s been sidelined by issues with his hands, elbows, shoulders, feet, knees, and hamstrings – giving him a whopping total of 10 stints on the injured list.
But his happy-go-lucky disposition is one of the big reasons the Braves brought him back.
Sandoval entertained teammates this spring by doing a dance on a clubhouse table. As funny as that sight was, it’s even more amazing that the table didn’t buckle and send the Venezuelan to the sidelines again.
Atlanta manager Brian Snitker certainly gave him an extended opportunity to make the club this spring, giving him 48 at-bats. The rotund switch-hitter responded with a .400 batting average, best among the Braves, and beat out Jason Kipnis, Johan Camargo, and Jake Lamb for a roster spot.
With regular third baseman Austin Riley struggling mightily at the plate, Sandoval might even sneak a start or two at the hot corner. Letting him bat four times a night instead of one can only help a team caught in a stifling scoring famine.
Sandoval might be the slowest man in the majors but his hitting hasn’t suffered. Like Smoky Burgess, one of the premier pinch-hitters of all time, the Panda knows his place and is ready when called.
Watching him is going to be one of the best parts of the 162-game season – and perhaps beyond.
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