ST. PETERSBURG — With their top three starting pitchers struggling in their last outings, the Rays could sure use a stopper in Seattle to snap their recent slide, with five losses in their past six games.
And tonight's starter, RHP Andy Sonnanstine, appears up to the task. He said he has made some adjustments since his first two shorter outings and feels very comfortable at Safeco Field, where he is 1-0 and has given up just two runs in 141/3 innings for a 1.26 ERA.
Sonnanstine said he has worked a lot in recent bullpen sessions on fastball command, something he wanted to improve on from his last start, when he gave up two runs in five innings against the Yankees. He has concentrated on getting a good changeup going, emphasizing he wants to stay committed to the pitch he worked on throughout spring training.
Sonnanstine (0-1, 6.52) feels he's "without a doubt" turned a corner in putting it all together.
"I just have to kind of stay within myself and let myself do what I can do and not try to fix too much or mess with too many things," Sonnanstine said.
In the swing: In the Rays' — or Devil Rays' — past, West Coast trips were tall tasks. But as Tampa Bay prepares to play six games against Seattle and Oakland, manager Joe Maddon said their success last season (winning three of four in Seattle for their first series victory there since August 2004) gives them more confidence.
The Rays were a better team last year, and that's a big part of it, but Maddon said another part is young players growing more comfortable and confident away from home. The Rays split a six-game season-opening road trip, including two wins at Fenway Park. They were 40-41 on the road in 2008.
"I think we've become a better road team in general; we have found ways to win," Maddon said. "It's not as daunting, not as uncomfortable as maybe it had been. For younger players, it really is uncomfortable in the beginning. As you see the same ballpark over and over again, there's a different feeling about it. It's, I guess, more comfortable in a good way."
Bartlett bat: SS Jason Bartlett finished the homestand on a hot streak. He went 9-for-19 with four stolen bases in his past six games, raising his average to .429, best among American League shortstops.
Maddon said the key for Bartlett has been keeping the ball out of the air, hitting line drives instead. And he said the Rays noticed Bartlett expanded his strike zone a bit last season, and he has improved on that.
"You saw base hit to right, you saw line drive to centerfield, you saw line drive down the leftfield line," Maddon said. "He's using the whole field, and he's not hitting fly balls, period."
Coming soon: Maddon said part of the reason Pat Burrell is off to a slow start (.225 with one homer and four RBIs) is that he's still getting acclimated to his role as DH after being an outfielder his entire career. But Maddon said he has seen some good at-bats lately for Burrell, who has a three-game hitting streak, and said more should be yet to come. "Even if you look through historically, with his career, there's going to be periods that sometimes he gets cold and he gets hot," Maddon said. "I really believe the hot stuff is coming very soon."
Remember me?: Ex-Rays RHP Edwin Jackson (1-0, 2.14 ERA), traded to the Tigers in the offseason for OF Matt Joyce, has been sharp in his first three starts, taking a shutout into the eighth inning in two and giving up just five walks.
IZZY UPDATE: RHP Jason Isringhausen joined Double-A Montgomery and pitched a shutout inning, striking out two, walking one and throwing 21 pitches, 10 for strikes.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.