SAN FRANCISCO (CBS / AP) ― Pablo Sandoval, the fan favorite known as “Kung Fu Panda,” threw up regularly after running up desert hills in Arizona this winter. He did sprint workouts on the track with Olympic decathlete Dan O’Brien. San Francisco’s slimmed-down third baseman even sought the hitting advice of home run king Barry Bonds.
Sandoval is ready to save his job with the World Series champions. They challenged him to do so — and are confident he has done the work to return to top form in 2011.
“I had to make a decision if I wanted to keep playing in the big leagues,” Sandoval said Friday, a day ahead of the team’s FanFest at AT&T Park. “To save my career.”
There has been no bigger mystery around the Giants this winter than Sandoval’s girth. What would he look like come the start of spring training later this month? He is fit and significantly lighter than a year ago, but that’s no guarantee the free-swinging slugger will be a hitting machine again right away.
His 2010 funk wasn’t all about weight, either. He acknowledged his mental approach was off and he needed to just enjoy himself and have fun.
“Pandoval,” as he calls himself on Twitter, is eager to start anew after batting .268 with just 13 home runs and 63 RBIs in his second full season in the big leagues. Only a year earlier, he was among the last players left off the All-Star team.
The 24-year-old Sandoval has hired a personal chef to cook him three meals a day during the season in San Francisco. He hasn’t had soda or chips for 2 1/2 months and only picked up a bat last month after two months of only conditioning and weightlifting workouts.
Hitting coach Hensley Meulens gave Sandoval space this offseason to get right on his own.
“I think he took it upon himself to get in great shape. He looks good,” Meulens said. “I’m sure he had a lot of thoughts himself. He didn’t need me in the offseason as well to be in his brain like we had the whole season. We took that approach with him this whole offseason, let him be himself. I think the one thing he needs to realize is this is a different year. We told him at the end of last year we know he’s important for the ballclub. We just needed to see if he learned a lesson from last year.”
Sandoval worked with Bonds’ former trainer, Greg Oliver, in the Phoenix, Ariz. area. There were hill workouts on Thursdays and sessions in the pool on Fridays.
And Bonds, what insight did he provide?
“He told me to get patient at home plate,” Sandoval said. “And look for a pitch I can punch with my hands.”
Sandoval had to take it upon himself this offseason to make a transformation that would stick, unlike the hyped-up “Operation Panda” program he endured last winter. He skipped winter ball back home in Venezuela this time, making a short trip back two weeks ago for his country’s home run derby (he placed third).
Sandoval started out well in spring training last year and even early in the regular season. Meulens believes he will be there again.
And manager Bruce Bochy is heading into spring training with Sandoval as his projected starter at third.
“It’s great. I’m proud of how hard he’s worked to get to this point,” Bochy said. “There comes a time you have to take responsibility for yourself, whether it’s your actions or play. A lot has been done from the organization for Pablo. It was in Pablo’s hands and he took the bull by the horns, so to speak, and got himself in this kind of shape.”
Sandoval acknowledges his weight yo-yoed all of last season and his hips hurt from the extra pounds. His defense suffered and he looked winded on the basepaths.
He played in only six of the Giants’ postseason games, including one appearance in the five-game World Series win over Texas. Sandoval committed 13 errors and grounded into an NL-high 26 double plays.
“We’re human beings,” he said of his struggles during a year in which he also went through a divorce and dealt with other personal issues. “Things happen. It’s going to be my year. Last year was last year. This is a new year.”
The Giants sure hope so. Sandoval provided a glimpse of his untapped potential in 2009, when he hit .330 with 25 homers and 90 RBIs in 153 games.
“Do we get the old Pablo back?” general manager Brian Sabean said. “That would be like making a trade within the organization.”
Even Sandoval’s teammates look forward to seeing how he bounces back.
“He has responded well. Obviously he’s a huge part of this team and we need him,” outfielder Cody Ross said. “He’s put in some long, hard work, a lot of sweat. It’s nice to see him care and want to get back to where he was.”
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