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04/30/2012 1:45 PM ET
Sandoval sheds pounds, improves play
Giants third baseman struggled in '10, came back strong in '11
By Hal Bock / MLBPLAYERS.com
Thousands of people fight the battle of the bulge on a daily basis, tempted by foods that pack on the pounds. Pablo Sandoval, nicknamed Kung Fu Panda after the cartoon character known for his cuddly demeanor and profile, knows all about this struggle. The Giants third baseman will never be svelte. But he's proven that he can fight back when it comes to fitness.
Sandoval got off to a fast start this season, assembling the longest start-of-the-season hitting streak in the Major Leagues and matching a franchise record set by Willie Mays in 1960. That followed his comeback a year ago, when he shed about 40 pounds and regained a key spot in the Giants' lineup. He batted .315 with 23 home runs and 70 RBIs last season after a bleak 2010 when San Francisco won the World Series with very little help from Sandoval.
That was when the Giants launched "Operation Panda," a fitness program designed to get Sandoval back in shape. He enrolled in Triple Threat Performance in Tempe, Ariz., run by former Giants strength coach Greg Oliver.
A strict diet and workout regimen restored Sandoval's productivity. He knew he had to make changes after he batted just .268 during the Giants' championship season. Things got so bad that Sandoval lost his regular job and appeared in just one game as San Francisco defeated Texas in the World Series.
So, Sandoval committed himself to change.
"That happens sometimes, up and down seasons,'' he said. "I knew I had to turn it around, and I knew I could."
And that's what he did. The lighter Sandoval was quicker on defense and did not labor as much running the bases. Most importantly, his bat became productive again. He had a 22-game hitting streak, the fourth longest in Major League history for a Venezuelan-born player, and led the Giants in runs scored, home runs, RBIs and multi-hit games.
There was a speed bump early in the season when Sandoval fractured the hamate bone in his right hand while swinging a bat during a game at Washington on April 29. The injury cost him 40 games, but he came back strong. There was a stretch of nine straight games in which he had an extra base hit, the first Giant to accomplish that since Mays did it in 1963. Sandoval punctuated his season by hitting for the cycle on Sept. 15. The Giants rewarded his recovery with a three-year, $17.5 million contract.
There was some concern when Sandoval arrived in Spring Training looking a little thick around the middle.
"It's muscle mass," the third baseman explained. "I've been working hard. I trust in what I can do in the field."
And so far, the switch hitter has delivered as promised. He's even become a bit more selective at the plate, cutting back on his free-swinging style.
Sandoval has shown an ability to change before. A natural left-hander -- he still signs autographs that way -- he learned how to throw right-handed because he wanted to become a catcher. Then, he became a switch hitter and learned to play first base and third base.
Signed by the Giants in 2003, Sandoval spent five seasons in the low Minors before bursting on the Major League scene midway through the 2008 season, when he batted .345 in just 41 games. Sandoval became the pudgy Panda -- a nickname hung on him by pitcher Barry Zito -- and fan favorite the next season when he hit .330.
Then came 2010 and the offseason commitment to conditioning. He is reminded of that change by the tattoo on his left forearm -- the Serenity Prayer. It reads: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference."
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.