By Ernie Palladino
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Joe Girardi and Gary Sanchez walk fine lines these days.
In essence, Sanchez is currently a valuable bat whose defense behind the plate is suspect, to say the least. Only in his second year, he is still learning, still experiencing the bumps young players must navigate.
In essence, Girardi is a manager in the midst of a division race, his team needing to continue winning to hang close enough off the Red Sox’s shoulders to make a September run a reality.
So, the lines they walk have become precariously thin. Sanchez must improve; the Yanks must win. Girardi’s job is to figure out how best to reconcile the two.
Girardi knows that DHing Sanchez or sitting him completely for backup Austin Romine, as the manager did in consecutive games over the weekend, is not the answer. And Sanchez knows he needs to improve — specifically at blocking pitches to prevent his league-leading 12-passed ball total from growing.
And they both know that won’t happen if Sanchez sits on the bench, be it awaiting his turn as a DH or taking a whole quasi-punishment day off. Unfortunately, the only way a baseball player learns is through doing it.
Players gotta play, even as they struggle during a division race.
That’s especially true for catchers. That position is the only one besides pitcher that is involved directly in every play. From pitch selection to blocking the flutterers and divers that can cost his battery mate pitch count and runner position, a catcher can win or lose a game for you.
The learning part — the original reason the Yankees populated their lineup with so many youngsters this year — has become the frustration, too. With the Yanks attaining true challenger status through a hot start, expectations have replaced development in many minds.
Yet, Girardi can’t give in to the temptation to interrupt that development, even if it means ceding the division. Blessed with a strong arm and power that has produced 17 homers and 52 RBIs, Sanchez was not brought up as a DH or, as some have suggested, a first baseman. He has been groomed as a catcher. And as a catcher he has shown the potential of becoming a good one. Pitchers like how he calls a game. He throws out larcenous baserunners.
Sanchez’ considerable trouble comes in blocking pitches. He must improve, a point Girardi made in no uncertain, public terms after Sanchez committed his last passed ball in Friday’s loss in Cleveland.
The answer seems simple enough. React faster. Get down quicker. Stay focused.
None of that improves unless Sanchez is crouched behind the plate.
Playing the veteran Romine regularly is certainly a tempting option. He’s a good defensive catcher, but the Yanks would lose something offensively. Girardi admitted recently that his lineup is stronger with Sanchez behind the plate and somebody else at DH.
It’s why he returned his young catcher to his natural position against the Blue Jays on Tuesday. Sanchez went 0-for-2 with a walk and run scored in the Yankees’ 4-2 loss. He played error-free behind the plate.
Division race aside, the kid has to learn. Girardi, the ex-catcher, will certainly stay on Sanchez’s back, using the carrot and stick of playing time to coax his catcher into the dirt and save those errant pitches.
But through it all, he’ll have to fight the temptation to put the young backstop elsewhere to preserve the team’s spot in the division race. Girardi must remember that part of this year — perhaps the most important part — is development.
If that means putting up with Sanchez’ defensive shortcomings in favor of a brighter future, then so be it.
He’s a catcher.
Girardi must play him as such.
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