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Sonnanstine has right stuff for Rays

Andy Sonnanstine leads the Rays’ starting staff in winning percentage and is tied for first in victories.

Associated Press

Andy Sonnanstine leads the Rays’ starting staff in winning percentage and is tied for first in victories.

ST. PETERSBURG — By now, he was supposed to have been replaced.

Wasn't Andy Sonnanstine the guy holding down a spot in the Rays rotation until David Price was ready? Wasn't he the starter most likely to wind up on a seat somewhere in the corner of the bullpen?

Yet here we are in mid September, and look at where Sonnanstine is standing:

In between the Rays and second place.

With Tampa Bay teetering on the edge of the American League East lead, all Sonnanstine did was match Red Sox star Josh Beckett pitch for pitch. Better still, he did it for the second time in a week.

The Rays avoided falling into second place Tuesday night, and they have their No. 5 starter to thank for it. The No. 5 starter who, by the way, is tied for the team lead with 13 victories.

"With Andy, everybody is always expecting him to not do well because he doesn't throw 92 mph," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Andy has always been a winner. It speaks to his inner confidence. He knows that he belongs here, and that he can pitch well on a consistent basis.

"He's proven the critics wrong for many years, and he's doing it again."

If you have not yet come around to Sonnanstine's way of pitching, consider these numbers. In consecutive starts against the Red Sox, Sonnanstine has thrown 13 innings with zero earned runs, seven hits and 12 strikeouts. In the same two games, Beckett has gone 14 innings and given up two runs, with nine hits and 14 strikeouts.

One of those guys is a former World Series MVP who is making $9.5-million. The other was once named most improved player in the New England Collegiate Baseball League and is now making $395,000. The thing is, in the heat of the pennant race, you couldn't tell one from the other.

"The guy knows how to pitch," Rays All-Star Scott Kazmir said. "You watch the hitters, and they get so frustrated against him. So frustrated. They're sitting, waiting, thinking off-speed, and, boom, fastball. They think, 'Okay, he won't do that two in a row.' Boom, right there. He just knows the game.

"We wouldn't be here right now if it hadn't been for him this year."

Think about Tampa Bay's 2004 draft. That was the summer the Rays got Jeff Niemann in the first round, Wade Davis in the third and Jacob McGee in the fifth. All, at one time or another, have been anointed future fixtures in the rotation.

Yet it is Sonnanstine, taken in the 13th round, who has zoomed past the bunch of them. He went 40-18 in four minor-league seasons, working with different speeds, pinpoint control and a bellyful of nerve.

"I have to be a little bit finer than some guys because I don't have that 97 mph fastball, exploding slider and stuff like that," Sonnanstine said. "This is something I can hang my hat on. That's a world championship team I've faced in my last two starts, and I feel like I've done very well with — you could say — subpar or average stuff. I'm very proud of what I've done."

And this, folks, is the life preserver to which a drowning team clings.

When all else is failing, starting pitching is what gets you through the night.

It absolves the third baseman and his rare error. It makes up for the offense going missing. It gives a team hope in a pennant race that was threatening to turn sour.

This is the only answer the Rays have in the season's final days. Tampa Bay was barely capable of scoring in bunches when the lineup was healthy, so it's ridiculous to think the Rays can win many slugfests with Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton out of the picture.

The defense can help and the bullpen can save, but if the starting pitching does not do its part, the Rays will not win the East. And they will head to the wild card with a noticeable limp.

In case you hadn't noticed, starting pitching has been a large part of the team's recent swoon. After posting a 3.80 ERA in July and 3.58 in August, Rays starters came into Tuesday with a 5.03 ERA in September.

Kazmir was hammered Monday night. Edwin Jackson was just as bad on Sunday and Matt Garza was not at his best the day before that.

That means the ball, and the division lead, was put in Sonnanstine's hand Tuesday night.

And, all these months later, who would ever imagined that was the best thing the Rays could have done.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Sonnanstine has right stuff for Rays 09/16/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 22, 2008 2:23pm]

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