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03/28/07 8:00 PM ET

Notes: Sanchez begins road back

Bucs shortstop appears in first game since March 6

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Freddy Sanchez took a step forward on Wednesday, albeit a small one, when the National League batting champion appeared in his first game since March 6.

Sanchez took ground balls and ran the bases at McKechnie Field in the morning then rode the team bus to Sarasota to compete in the Triple-A Indianapolis "B" game against the Reds affiliate. The second baseman went 3-for-8 because of a rule which allowed him to bat every inning. He did not, however, run the bases during the game.

"It felt all right, I'm slowly getting into the mix," Sanchez said. "Obviously, I'm nowhere close to where I want to be hitting-wise, but I was making contact. The big thing was seeing live pitching."

General manager Dave Littlefield has said more than once that the decision on Opening Day will remain based on how Sanchez feels physically, but he has also said that Sanchez needs to be able to run the bases during a game before he enters the Major League lineup.

Sanchez said on Tuesday that a second opinion on his twisted right knee was very favorable and that he was now encouraged to push himself to the limit because he was officially cleared to do as much as he felt comfortable doing.

"I'll go out and go as hard as I can," Sanchez said. "I play the game with no fear. I like to do a lot of things with no fear and you can't be cautious.

"We're coming down to crunch time, and I need to push it a little more. I want to push it."

Sanchez, 29, twisted a ligament in his right knee while turning a double play against Philadelphia. The original diagnosis was day-to-day, but as the Grapefruit League draws to a close, it appears more and more likely he'll begin the regular season on the disabled list until he can gain enough at-bats and feel comfortable running the bases.

Kuwata will stay: Japanese starter Masumi Kuwata spoke to the media for the first time since a nasty fall on Monday resulted in a grade-3 ankle sprain and put him on the sidelines for 4-6 weeks. Kuwata, 38, said he'll remain in Bradenton, Fla., and work out at extended Spring Training. From there, he'll likely land at Triple-A Indianapolis. It's a detour in his dream to pitch in the Majors, but Kuwata met it with determination and a smile.

"I wanted to stay here," he said. "Everyone is so nice and they've helped me a lot. I'm one of the Pirates. I'm part of the team."

The right-hander was rushing to back up third base on Monday when he became tangled up with home plate umpire Wally Bell, who was jogging to third as well. Kuwata stepped on Bell's foot and rolled his right ankle, laying facedown on the field for several moments before being carted off. His ankle, though not broken, is the most severe degree of a sprain.

Not that it's dampened his spirit any.

"First of all, I want my ankle to get healthy, and then I'll try to pitch on the sidelines," Kuwata said. "After, maybe Double- or Triple-A, and then, once I get my confidence, I want to try the Major Leagues."

Duke pleased: Opening Day starter Zach Duke was satisfied with his final preseason tuneup on Wednesday, despite the fact that he received a no-decision after surrendering back-to-back home runs in the sixth.

Duke threw three scoreless innings to allow the Pirates to hold a 1-0 lead but was tagged with an earned run in the fourth after scattering four straight singles.

"I got the ball up just a little bit, and they hit some ground balls that got through. That stuff happens," he said. "I think it was good for me to limit the damage to one run right there. It builds my confidence for getting out of jams."

The left-hander held the Reds off the board for another inning before Adam Dunn and Juan Encarnacion went deep to tie the game at three. Still, Duke was able to get out of the inning otherwise unscathed. Maybe more important than the actual stat line, Duke showed solid control over a number of pitches and went away satisfied from his last exhibition start.

"I was able to throw my fastball to both sides, and I was able to get the changeup for strikes, and the breaking ball was good, so I feel pretty good with where I'm at heading into the season," he said.

Up next: The Pirates return home on Thursday and will host the Phillies in a 1:05 p.m. ET contest. Right-hander Shawn Chacon will get the ball for Pittsburgh, while lefty J.A. Happ will work for Philadelphia. Pirates starter Ian Snell is scheduled to start a Minor League game at Pirate City for his final outing before the regular season begins.

Dawn Klemish is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.