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Duke, Sanchez take in All-Star spectacle

Duke, Sanchez take in All-Star spectacle

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ST. LOUIS -- Zach Duke called it validation, reflecting on the past and on the journey. Freddy Sanchez deemed it an honor, yet was forced to consider what the immediate future may hold.

Sitting next to each other in the St. Louis Hyatt hotel Monday, the two Pirates All-Star representatives addressed the media, kicking off their two-day extravaganza in the All-Star city. And oddly enough, just days ago both players questioned whether they'd even be here, flanked by a black and gold Pittsburgh "P."

An All-Star invitation had been handed to Sanchez nine days ago, making him the first three-time Pirates All-Star since Jason Kendall and the first Pittsburgh infielder to be named to three All-Star teams since Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski. However, there is a growing likelihood that this could be Sanchez's last as a member of the Pirates.

Since being named to the team, his name has flooded the rumor mills, suggesting that Sanchez's time in Pittsburgh is set to end within the next 15 days. At times last week, there were some media outlets that predicted Sanchez wouldn't be with the organization long enough to don a Pirates hat in Tuesday's All-Star Game. Obviously nothing has come to fruition yet, but Sanchez can't help but wonder when and if something eventually will.

"It makes it tough," Sanchez said of considering the possibility of leaving. "It makes it that much harder. Whether I consider it my home or not and whether I'd like to finish my career as a Pirate, that doesn't mean anything when you look at the business aspect of it."

In the meantime, though, Sanchez refuses to consider that this could be his last All-Star Game representing a city that he considers home.

"You never want anything to be your last," he said. "That doesn't get in the back of my head at all. I consider Pittsburgh my home. Although I got drafted by Boston, I never really got to play up there much. I got traded over early enough to where I consider this my home. To be able to represent the fans of Pittsburgh and the organization, that means a lot to me. That's real special to me."

All the focus on Sanchez's up-in-the-air future unfortunately has taken away from what he has done so far this season. As is often the case when playing on a team that makes few national headlines, Sanchez has quietly put together one of the best first halves of any Major League second baseman.

Heading into the break, Sanchez's .316 batting average was best among all second baseman. He ranks second in the National League with 27 doubles. And with only one error and a .997 fielding percentage, Sanchez has been as defensively sound as any second baseman in baseball.

He's not the only one on his team that has gone under the radar. Duke's season success, which is masked by an inconspicuous 8-8 record, has been hidden from the rest of the league in much the same way.

While Sanchez considered the possibility that he'd be playing in Tuesday's game wearing a different cap, Duke had made plans for a relaxing few days in Texas. That changed on Sunday, though, as the left-hander learned that he would be joining Sanchez as a replacement for injured Giants pitcher Matt Cain.

On Monday -- after Duke had scrambled to make plans for his wife, Kristin, his parents and his in-laws to join him in St. Louis -- the magnitude of the invitation had finally sunk in.

"It's such an honor to be a part of the All-Star team," Duke said. "It's one of those things where I am absolutely shocked that I am here and very thankful for it."

Duke's four-year journey to this point also makes it that much more rewarding. With the way Duke took the NL by storm as a rookie in 2005, it seemed a safe bet to assume he had an All-Star invitation waiting in his future.

But then there were the steps back he took in '06 and again in '07 and '08, to the point where the left-hander was not even guaranteed a spot in the Pirates' rotation coming into Spring Training this year. But that 5.08 combined ERA over the previous two seasons has been replaced by a 3.28 ERA in this one. Duke has already pitched three complete games and is fifth in the league in innings pitched.

He's healthy and once again confident, proving to himself that despite how far back he may have fallen at one time, those All-Star dreams could still come true.

"I always hoped that it would, but until it happens, you never really know for sure," Duke said. "This is definitely a very good feeling and it puts a very restful and very peaceful spot in my mind, knowing that all the work that I've been doing forever is validated."

For Sanchez and Duke, there's also the added thrill of being able to enjoy this experience together, much as Sanchez did in 2006 when then-teammate Jason Bay also made the NL squad when the game was hosted by Pittsburgh. It's only the third time in the past 16 years that the Pirates have had two Al-Stars.

"He's the old All-Star veteran over here," Duke said, nodding to Sanchez. "I'm just trying to follow in his footsteps and not ruffle too many feathers."

"To be able to show him the ropes a little bit and where to go and go to the festivities with him makes it a little more special," Sanchez responded. "He's been our horse all year. He's thrown unbelievably all year and has been so consistent that you said, 'Duke deserves to be there.' It couldn't have worked out better."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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