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Tampa Bay Rays' Andy Sonnanstine seeks to put his struggles behind

PORT CHARLOTTE — Andy Sonnanstine said there were many restless nights last season.

Sonnanstine struggled so much, he was dropped from the rotation he worked so hard to crack and was demoted to Triple-A Durham. It was more puzzling considering it came just one year after a breakthrough 2008, when he won 13 games and proved clutch in the Rays' World Series run.

The fall served as a wakeup call for Sonnanstine, who, like many times in his career, had to prove himself all over again.

Sonnanstine, 27, vowed to leave "no rock unturned" in turning it around, overhauling his offseason conditioning program and entering camp in the best shape of his career. And it has shown this spring, with Sonnanstine — in a battle for the fifth rotation spot but possibly headed to the bullpen — looking a lot like he did in 2008. His pitches are crisper, and his confidence couldn't be higher.

"He did have a disappointing year last year and he'd be the first one to tell you that," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "But we can't forget the pitcher we had at the end of 2008 and throughout the playoffs in 2008 — he pitched in some gigantic ballgames for us. I'd look for (him to be) a little bit closer to '08 than '09, and I'm sure he does, too."

So what went wrong last season, when his ERA ballooned to 6.77? With a fastball topping out in the high 80s, he doesn't have the overpowering stuff that would give him a larger margin for error. His success depends on locating pitches, getting ahead of hitters and using the deceptiveness in his delivery to his advantage.

"Bad location and not executing pitches is really what was killing me," he said.

To find the difference, Sonnanstine watched video of some of his 2008 starts. He charted every one of his pitches, watching the catcher, his mechanics, etc., trying to find clues. He figured out he needed to pitch inside better to right-handers, who hit .367 against him last year.

Sonnanstine also realized he had to prepare himself better physically. That's why he worked with the Rays staff to put together a five-day program, which is "night and day" different from what he used before.

"When I would lay my head down to sleep at night once I started those workouts, I'd ask myself, 'Did I do absolutely everything I could to get better today?' and I started sleeping easier," Sonnanstine said.

Not that Sonnanstine slept more, thanks to his new golden retriever, Murphy, who made sure he was up in the morning, "I was going through some potty training," he said, smiling.

Sonnanstine entered this spring training knowing he'd be in for a battle, with right-hander Wade Davis, one of their top pitching prospects, making such a splash in September. The Rays will decide soon between the two, and even though Sonnanstine has had a better spring, he may end up in the bullpen, where he has experience.

Either way, Sonnanstine is used to the underdog role: a 13th-round pick out of Kent State who didn't have the size or stuff but, as manager Joe Maddon says, "has always been a winner."

Sonnanstine admits he's at his best when he's backed into a corner and has to fight his way out.

"His whole career, he has pretty much been that guy," Maddon said. "He's never thrown hard enough to pitch in the big leagues. He's been too skinny to pitch in the big leagues, all those things.

"But he's pitched in the big leagues, and he's done it well."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Rays' Andy Sonnanstine seeks to put his struggles behind 03/23/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 24, 2010 8:19am]

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