PHILADELPHIA — Don Sonnanstine admitted it was fitting that his son would start the biggest game of his career today in Philadelphia, a blue-collar town that is home to one of the most famous underdogs, Rocky.
After all, Rays right-hander Andy Sonnanstine has had his share of naysayers and doubters.
Sonnanstine, 25, doesn't have overpowering stuff that wows scouts. He's not very big (6-3, 185) and has an unconventional delivery, taking advantage of double-jointed elbows to vary arm slots and speeds. The former 13th-round pick has said he has had to scratch and claw his way through every level, where he has survived and succeeded.
Rays manager Joe Maddon calls Sonnanstine a "winner." He has won his only two postseason starts and is scheduled to pitch Game 4 of the World Series tonight against the Phillies.
"There are guys who are bigger, better and faster," Don Sonnanstine said. "Yet he's persevered. He's not a flamethrower, and there's people out there with a better changeup. But there are a lot of pitchers out there drafted much higher than him who are sitting at home watching the World Series on TV. And he's here."
Sonnanstine, whose mother, Joyce, was a long-time home economics teacher and whose father is a retired salesman, had to "earn everything he had," according to Kent State pitching coach Mike Birkbeck. The Wadsworth, Ohio native worked jobs as a janitor during the summer to pay for his baseball trips and was a guide at a local hunt club.
Sonnanstine had a strong career at Kent State, developing a reputation for being calm under pressure, for having a great analytical mind and control of all his pitches. Birkbeck, who pitched six years in the majors, said not many mortals could be so creative at the end of their delivery, mixing in different timing with arm motions, keeping bats at bay.
Quipped Don: "I wouldn't be surprised if Andy threw a knuckleball one day."
And Birkbeck said he wouldn't be surprised if Sonnanstine performed well today, using his favorite story as an example. It was 2004 in the Mid American Conference tournament, and Sonnanstine had helped Kent State upset No. 1 seed Central Michigan with a shutout. Three days later, Birkbeck and Sonnanstine were at the batting cages watching Eastern Michigan and Miami play to see who would face Kent State in the title game. The EMU pitcher had dominated the game, and Birkbeck noticed Sonnanstine getting his "mojo" going.
Birkbeck asked Sonnanstine, "How you feeling today?" Sonnanstine looked at him and deadpanned: "Give me the ball."
Sonnanstine threw a gem, and the Golden Flashes won the title.
"Andy has always been a big-game pitcher," Birkbeck said.
And there's no bigger game than today.
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org