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Aaron Boone impressed by Gary Sanchez's hot spring on both sides of the ball

TAMPA -- For the second straight spring, Gary Sanchez is raking. Last year, in 51 at-bats, Sanchez slashed .373/.429/.765 with five home runs and 16 RBI, and this year, entering Friday, he's at .370/.414/.778 with three homers and nine RBI in 27 at-bats.

His latest performance, in Thursday's 9-5 win over the Pirates, greatly upped all of those totals, as he smacked a double and a homer in four at-bats and finished with five RBI.

"His bat always looks ready for Opening Day; the man can hit, and he's in a good spot," manager Aaron Boone said following that game. "We've asked a lot of him, we've challenged him and we've just had a really good plan in place that he's bought into since day one."

"My swing feels good, but I still think there's more work to be done," Sanchez later added through team interpreter Marlon Abreu. "I want to stay away from swinging at bad pitches, and I want to command the strike zone better."

Friday will bring a new milestone for Sanchez, as he catches his first back-to-back games of the spring. Boone intimated that, after catching seven innings Thursday, Sanchez would go about half the game Friday before giving way to Austin Romine.

It's a new test for this spring, sure, but one Boone thinks his receiver will ace with flying colors.

"I'm proud of the work he's put in every day, and we'll continue to challenge him and expect a lot out of him, because he's that important to our club," Boone said. "I've been really pleased with the work that's been put in every day, on both sides of the ball."

The offense has always been there, but it is Sanchez's defense that has been much maligned throughout his career, from the Minors all the way up. He did also have a passed ball mixed in with his monster game Thursday, but so far, both Boone and the backstop himself have seen a lot of positive strides behind the plate this spring.

I don't mean to be hyperbolic about it, but I think he's been catching great," Boone said. "His work in the dirt, his pitch framing, his commitment to his pitchers to game planning…all that has been great, and I think he's in a good place heading into the season."

"I definitely feel that I've improved in blocking balls; I feel better than last year with that, but there's more improvement to be made," Sanchez added. "Even though I feel better, it doesn't mean I'm going to be perfect. Passed balls are part of the game, and they are going to happen, but that's why I have to keep improving and keep working. You want to be consistent, to prevent that as much as possible."

Sanchez is committed to the improvement, and so far this spring, he and Boone have been seen communicating often. The topics of those conversations aren't always known, but the tone seems to be a lot different than in the past, with a manager who reportedly had a bit more of an adversarial relationship with the 24-year-old burgeoning superstar.

"It's definitely good communication. We're always talking about everything," Sanchez said of Boone. "It's going very well, I'm very happy with that. He's a very nice guy, which I think you might know."

And there are no worries about any friction between manager and catcher from the other side, either.

"I think we're off on a good start. I feel like we have good back and forth, and I'd like to think I'm earning his trust," Boone said. "The relationship is important, but I've been more impressed with the person. What he's done is all on him and his commitment level, and that's exciting. I don't think it's a surprise, but any of those potential perceptions have been shattered in my eyes."

And both player and skipper have high expectations of where this relationship can go.

"I feel pretty good on both sides of the ball right now, but like I said, there's more work to be done. I want to keep being more consistent," Sanchez said.

Added Boone: "We'll continue to expect it and challenge him, and he'll challenge us, too. He's just such an important player for our team. We've expressed that to him, and I think he understands it."