Over the winter, the Twins discussed the idea of having Sano, their No. 1 prospect according to MLB.com, make a few trips over to big league camp to let him show off his highly touted bat against Major League pitching and play a little third base. Gardenhire mentioned it again Wednesday to a Minor League field coordinator, asking when Sano would pay him a visit.
The answer, as it turned out, was just a day later. Sano got word Wednesday night that he'd be joining the Twins in Tampa, and about 24 hours later, he found himself in the starting lineup against the Yankees under the lights at George M. Steinbrenner Field, his first Grapefruit League game and his first taste of the Majors.
"I was so happy today," said Sano, who went 2-for-5 with two singles but may have been even better on defense.
The 19-year-old slugger played the whole game at third base and made several impressive grabs and throws, like the seventh-inning chopper by Jayson Nix that he reeled in with a backhanded grab before his bouncing throw to first base reached just in time to record the out.
"I was pretty impressed. He did that and rifled them over there and got some guys with some decent speed," Twins right-hander Cole De Vries said. "That was awesome. He played really well."
Sano said he's been working at third base every day at 8:30 a.m. with Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, a special assistant in the Twins' front office. They've been focusing on how Sano sets up before each pitch, making sure his hands are low to the ground and that he's bending his knees, not his waist. Molitor had asked Gardenhire to keep an eye on how well Sano stuck to that Thursday night, and Gardenhire was pleased that he'd only have good news to report when the team returns to Fort Myers.
If Thursday was any indication as to how well the former shortstop is coming along at the hot corner, those early-morning lessons are definitely paying off.
"I thought he moved really well at third base. I know he's had issues over there," Gardenhire said. "I know he's been working really, really hard there. I know Paul Molitor and him have been really getting after it, and they're working on his approach and his stance on getting reads. Obviously it's working out pretty good, because I thought he got great jumps on the ball. He made a [heck] of a backhand play down the line. ... He had a [heck] of a ballgame defensively."
More than anything, though, Gardenhire wanted Sano to have fun Thursday night. He wanted the hyped-up prospect to enjoy the moment, to not be afraid to swing if he saw a pitch he liked. And he did. It just so happened to be on the first pitch he saw from Yankees starter David Phelps, and it landed as a line-drive single to center field.
"He was having fun," Gardenhire said, cracking a smile. "He got up there, and we told him, 'Don't be afraid, let it fly. You get a pitch to hit, hit it.' First one he threw, he hit it. That's good coaching."
Sano singled to center again in the fourth inning, this time on an 0-1 pitch from Phelps. He went down swinging in his third at-bat and flied out to right field in the seventh and ninth innings.
There are few doubts about how Sano, MLB.com's No. 20 overall prospect, will fare with the bat. He hit .258 with an .893 OPS to go along with 28 homers and 100 RBIs in 129 games for Class A Beloit in the Midwest League last year, his first full Minor League season. He tore up rookie ball the year before, posting a .292/.352/.637 batting line and clubbing 20 homers in 66 games.
"He can swing," Gardenhire said. "That's nice. Yeah, that's very nice."
Gardenhire wouldn't mind seeing Sano again this spring, and he might have a chance to do so. If the Twins need a third baseman to fill out a travel roster or play a few innings, Gardenhire said he'd "go through the channels" to get Sano back with the big leaguers.
Keep in mind, however, that the Twins' top prospect would just be putting on a big league uniform for another day, not to stay. As advanced as he already may be with the bat, and as well as he played on defense Thursday night, it will still be some time before Sano comes over to Major League camp and doesn't head back at the end of the day.
But if he gets another opportunity like Thursday night, he'll certainly take it.
"When he tells me, [I'll be] ready to play," Sano said. "I'm ready every day. I'm working hard."