FORT MYERS, Fla. — It was good to see Pablo Sandoval playing baseball again Thursday afternoon. The slimmed-down Kung Fu Panda started at third base against the Northeastern Huskies, cracked a double to right (headfirst slide into second), and handled all of his chances nimbly in Boston’s 9-6 win over the collegians.
“I’m here,’’ said Sandoval, standing and sweating in front of his locker at JetBlue Park. “You get ups and downs during your career. You learn from the mistakes you make. The organization never has given up on me, so I have to put in the work to be back the way I was. I’m just going to do everything that I can to win games.’’
The last time we saw the Panda in action was last April, when his belt succumbed to his swollen gut and literally exploded in mid-swing at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.
It was one of the most humiliating moments any athlete could experience. It was like one of those “Want to get away?” commercials. It was like playing coed pickup basketball and falling to the floor after getting your shot blocked by your little sister.
The Panda has been a punch line around here for the better part of two seasons. A three-time World Series champ with the San Francisco Giants, he received a five-year, $95 million contract from the Red Sox after the 2014 season.
We thought there would be Panda heads in the stands and Carl Douglas’s ancient disco hit “Kung Fu Fighting” blaring from the Fenway loudspeakers while Sandoval charmed the masses and brought his championship ways to the American League East.
No. Nothing like that. We watched the Panda’s BMI rise while his OPS fell. Sandoval hit a career-low .245 in his first Boston season with a hideous OPS of .658. He was a switch hitter, but his average from the right side (.172 over two seasons) was so bad that he abandoned it.
Meanwhile, his defense fell off the map and the Sox finished in last place. Panda’s most newsworthy moment came when he was benched for a game after he got caught liking Instagram photos in the middle of a 5-2 loss in Atlanta.
In the wake of a second straight last-place finish by the Red Sox in 2015, Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez became Boston baseball’s Pinata Twins — blamed for everything that was wrong with the team. Both were sent home early at the end of the season and urged to lose weight and show up ready to redeem in 2016.
It worked out magically for Ramirez. He came to Fort Myers with a smile on his face, a spot in the infield, and renewed charge in his bat.
Panda? Not so much.
He showed up looking out of shape, and no one believed the Sox when they insisted he had only 17 percent body fat (“Did they say 70 percent?” we wondered).
Then he hurt his back. Then he hurt his shoulder. He lost his job to Travis Shaw, who had a scalding spring training. The Sox kept Sandoval around as a $17.6 million backup and sent him to the plate seven times in three games — including the belt explosion while swinging and missing at an R.A. Dickey knuckleball.
When the labrum tear was discovered, Sandoval had surgery and was shut down for the season. Shaw and the rest of the folks who played third for Boston in 2016 compiled the worst OPS (.686) in all of baseball.
The Sox had an interesting reaction to Panda’s surgery and his lost season: They traded away all of his competition in a single day at the winter meetings. Shaw was sent to Milwaukee in the Tyler Thornburg deal, and hours later, mega-prospect Yoan Moncada was shipped to the White Sox in the Chris Sale deal.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, makes Pablo Sandoval your Red Sox third baseman for 2017.
Panda shed about 30 pounds in the offseason. He won’t talk about his diet, except to say, “I got a program.’’
We know he’s on a low-carb regimen and he dropped a few lbs. by riding his mountain bike to the park and doing some boxing in the offseason. He says he has something to prove. He says his shoulder is healed. He says he’s OK again from the right side.
Sandoval played three grueling innings against Northeastern. Batting left, he popped up to Huskies shortstop Max Burt on a 2-and-0 pitch with two runners aboard in the first. In the third, he lined a double to right and splashed belly-down into second when the right fielder tried to gun him out.
Is he supposed to slide like that with his surgically repaired shouder?
“No, man, I’m not supposed to,” he answered. “But when you don’t think about it, you’re hustling and you don’t think about diving like that, but that’s the way I play.”
The Panda fielded his position cleanly, throwing out runners on routine grounders to end the first two innings, then catching a line drive to close out the third. He was positively catlike. The Panda of old.
“I felt good,” he said. “This being the first day, it was a challenge for me. After all the months that I missed playing, I feel excited to be back on the field.
“I’ve got a lot of things to prove. I’m just going to be humble and keep playing the game the way I play.
“My left shoulder is 100 percent. I have to be careful, but I’m ready. I’ve been working hard, so I feel good righthanded.”
One game down. Two hundred to go. The Sox play the New York Mets Friday at Fenway South.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at email@example.com