BRADENTON -- Tony Sanchez doesn't doubt his ability or his potential.
So despite the struggles and bumps he has endured since the Pittsburgh Pirates made him the fourth overall pick of the 2009 draft, Sanchez knew he would eventually get to the big leagues.
What he didn't know, however, is he'd be cutting his teeth while playing a role in the Pirates' most pivotal run of games in more than two decades.
Initially called up in June, Sanchez returned to Pittsburgh for two more stints and caught 16 games for the Pirates, who clinched a National League wild card and the franchise's first postseason berth since 1992.
Sanchez even became the personal catcher of sorts for Francisco Liriano, who emerged as the Pirates' ace and has already been named the 2014 Opening Day starter.
Late-summer call-ups are usually sent into meaningless major-league games in order to get some experience and apply it to the following spring.
Not Sanchez, who turns 26 in May.
"I wouldn't say it wasn't ideal, just not the easiest atmosphere to get thrown into," Sanchez said Tuesday before hitting a three-run home run and double for Team Gold during the Pirates' intrasquad game at McKechnie Field. "It just adds to the pressure when you're behind the plate for a catcher, a rookie catcher, who's struggled. I had enough stress on me, and then to add a playoff race into it, where we had to win these games, it didn't make it any easier. But it helped me lock in. That's what you're playing this game for; you're playing this game to make it into the playoffs."
Though Sanchez struggled at times defensively in Triple-A Indianapolis, committing 14 errors in 72 games last year, he hit .288 and was named the MVP of the Triple-A All-Star game. That made his stint in Pittsburgh even more gratifying, Sanchez said.
"I was grateful to be there and grateful to get the playing time that I did get," he said. "I think it speaks volumes about my work ethic and how much I wanted it, because I had two solid years of just subpar, below-average offensive production. And to put it together and have a great year offensively and defensively was huge for me."
Sanchez pocketed some memorable moments last summer. He hit his first major-league home run off San Francisco Giants ace Tim Lincecum; lunged over a dugout railing to catch a foul pop; established a rapport with Liriano, a 16-game winner who pitched to a 2.45 ERA in 44 innings with Sanchez serving as a catcher; and played a role in the Pirates' first winning season and playoff team in more than 20 years.
He also made a positive impact on manager Clint Hurdle.
"He received instruction well, got in and competed very well, game-planned well," Hurdle said. "It was a great opportunity for him to move that forward as far as acquiring major-league experience in meaningful games and pressure situations. Accepting the responsibility that comes with being behind the plate, making those calls, getting the most out of all the pitchers that come in, finishing games off and handling his offensive responsibilities very professionally as well."
Not surprisingly, this spring has a different feel for Sanchez.
"Huge difference. Huge. You're not treated any differently, but you treat yourself differently," he said. "I've gone to war with these guys. I was a small part of the first team ... to bring playoff baseball back to Pittsburgh in 20 years. I was a small part of that. Coming into this spring training, you tell yourself that you were one of those guys, that you did succeed, that you did help. As small of a percentage of it was, I was still there. ... Nobody can take that away from me.
"I kind of know my role. I know realistically I'm going to start in Indianapolis. But the trials and tribulations of last year are going to help me get out of Indy sooner rather than later."
The Pirates used their first pick of the 2013 draft on a catcher, Reese McGuire, and traded for Chris Stewart to serve as Russell Martin's primary backup.
But Sanchez acknowledged he has no control over moves such as those and is focused on just getting better and back to Pittsburgh.
"I'm going to play my own game. I'm not going to worry about anybody else," he said. "When I'm at my best, there's not a lot of people that are better than me. You take that mindset into every game, regardless of where you're playing, and you put some numbers up and control your pitching staff and you get done what you need to get done, you're going to be where you need to be at the end of the day."