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Sonnanstine shuts down Royals for 10th victory

ST. PETERSBURG — In the discussion over which Ray — or if they're really super-duper lucky, Rays — will be chosen today for the American League All-Star team, Andy Sonnanstine doesn't even get mentioned.

He doesn't throw very hard, rarely, and barely, cracking 90 mph. He doesn't have much of a pedigree, as a 13th-round draft pick out of Kent State. His ERA is the highest among all Rays starters, at 4.31.

But there's one thing Sonnanstine does very well, and that's win. After seven sterling innings in Saturday's 3-0 victory over the Royals, Sonnanstine now has 10 for the season, third most in the American League, and the Rays are 14-4 when he starts.

"He's the anomaly guy," manager Joe Maddon said.

The Rays have been doing lots of winning, six in a row, 10 of their past 11, and a major-league-most 54 overall. They've got a four-game lead over the Red Sox in the AL East and, at 54-32, are on a pace for 102 wins, which, after a 66-96 finish last year, would only be the greatest turnaround in major-league history.

As usual, it was a team effort, before another rocking Tropicana Field crowd of 30,418.

Akinori Iwamura had a huge two-out, two-strike hit, a two-run double after the Rays got the first two on in the second but Zack Greinke struck out the next two. Ben Zobrist went deep, making it three straight games (June 25-26, Saturday) with homers for a guy who had three in his first 90 big-league games.

J.P. Howell navigated the eighth after a leadoff walk to ex-Ray speedster Joey Gathright, and Grant Balfour blew through the ninth for his third save. He has now struck out 27 of the 63 batters he has faced.

But nobody did as much as Sonnanstine (10-3), who scattered five singles (with defensive help from Iwamura and others), throwing first-pitch strikes to 22 of 26 batters and only 26 balls among 85 pitches.

Maddon said the key is fastball command, and that Sonnanstine has been sharper lately, which allows him to make better use of his assortment of breaking pitches. It also left the Royals frustrated and manager Trey Hillman questioning his hitters' approach.

But there's more to Sonnanstine's success, something that radar guns can't show and scouts often don't see.

"For me, it comes down to what this guy's all about inside," Maddon said. "There's certain pitchers that players play behind, and they feel this guy is going to win somehow, and that matters. He's one of those guys. And he's always been that guy."

He was in the minors, compiling a 40-18 record. And after a couple-of-months adjustment period after his June 2007 promotion from Triple A, he has been in the majors, going 15-5 in 27 starts since Aug. 15. Only Arizona's Brandon Webb has more wins among all major-leaguers.

But to have a team-record-tying 10 wins before the All-Star break (with another start to go?) Even Sonnanstine admits he's surprised. But only a little.

"I just think I'm a very competitive person," he said, "and I have to prove myself at every level."

He has made a winning case so far.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Sonnanstine shuts down Royals for 10th victory 07/05/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 7, 2008 7:27am]

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