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SONNANSTINE FLUMMOXED BY DROPOFF

Coming off a breakthrough 13-win season, RHP Andy Sonnanstine couldn't have felt much better coming into this year.

As he makes what likely is his last start of this season tonight, Sonnanstine acknowledged that he couldn't feel much worse about how badly it has turned out: a 6-9 record, 7.15 ERA (highest of any major-league pitcher with 60-plus innings), .313 opponents average and a two-month exile to Triple A.

"I think it must have been a combination of things," Sonnanstine said. "Somehow, somewhere something changed. It's really hard for me to put my finger on it because I felt like the same guy. I felt like I was prepared. I felt confident. Success just wasn't coming around.

"It really is mind-boggling. I've had a lot of sleepless nights thinking about how it's gone."

Manager Joe Maddon has a few ideas, specifically that Sonnanstine made his delivery too generic (abandoning the pauses, odd angles and overall funk) and altered the angle of his slider.

He also acknowledged that coaching may have been part of the problem.

As the Rays worked extensively with Sonnanstine on improving against left-handed hitters, he struggled immensely this season against right-handers, allowing a .368 average (vs. .275 to lefties).

"Possibly the fact that we pounded so much to be better against the lefty, we have injured a little bit vs. the righty," Maddon said.

Sonnanstine - who won't be eligible for arbitration since he spent time in the minors - hopes to remain with the Rays and compete for a spot in either the 2010 rotation or bullpen.

L.A. LIGHTNING: INF Reid Brignac earned a start at second Tuesday with his four-hit game Monday and will be part of the offseason conversations about a 2010 roster spot as a utility infielder.

First the Rays likely have to decide who will play second base - whether to put Ben Zobrist there full time (or in right, or keep moving him around, which Maddon said is a possibility), try Sean Rodriguez (the key acquisition from the Angels), bring back Akinori Iwamura (at less than his approximate $5 million option) or find someone else.

ON SKED: Rays officials are excited about opening the season at home for the first time since 2005, envisioning the April 6 date with Baltimore as a celebration.

"Even though we've sold out our home opener the last four years, there's no substitute for the very first game of the season," Rays senior VP Mark Fernandez said. "And especially now that we have spring training in Port Charlotte. ... We plan on making it a big deal, absolutely."

The Rays have three home weekend series with the top-drawing Red Sox and Yankees, though not much marquee appeal from their interleague visitors: the D'backs, Padres and (as usual) Marlins. They have four rugged three-city road trips, starting with a chilly 10-game, 11-day April jaunt to Baltimore, Boston and Chicago, and make two trips to Anaheim and Oakland.

MINOR MATTERS: With LHP David Newmann taking a no-hitter into the seventh, Class A Charlotte beat Tampa (Yankees) 3-1 to advance to tonight's fifth and final game for the Florida State League championship. Game time is 7 in Port Charlotte. See stonecrabsbaseball.com for ticket info and to follow the game. ... Triple-A Durham beat Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Yankees) 4-1 to open the best-of-five International League championship. RHP prospect Jeremy Hellickson continued his breakout year, earning the win with 62/3 strong innings.

PITCHING IN: The rotation hasn't been set past Sunday, but Maddon said shutting down any of the young pitchers due to workload is not necessarily an issue. Jeff Niemann has thrown 1652/3, Wade Davis 1681/3 (92/3 in the majors, 1582/3 at Triple A) and David Price 144 (1092/3 and 341/3).

"We're okay with all three right now," Maddon said. "They're all on the border, on the top side of the borderline, so we can, but we're not overtly concerned right now."

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