10/07/08 12:05 AM ET
Sonnanstine earns Rays' biggest win
Unheralded starter keeps White Sox at bay in Game 4 clincher
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
Rays manager Joe Maddon said it no fewer than three times in his postgame press conference Monday. He pounded home the point almost as often as Sonnanstine pounded his fastball on the corners to White Sox sluggers.
The results that Sonnanstine got made him a winner again. This one was the biggest -- not just for him, but for the franchise, which won its first postseason series with Monday's 6-2 victory.
"I feel like we're getting used to celebrating," said Sonnanstine, soaked from the dousing of champagne in the visitors' clubhouse, "which is a really good thing for this franchise, I believe."
He has silenced Red Sox bats at Fenway Park, beaten the Yankees in the Bronx and tossed a complete-game shutout at home at Tropicana Field. His home and road statistics for the season are similar enough to not notice which is which. His consistency in his approach matches his calm demeanor.
On Monday, he walked into the "blackout" atmosphere the White Sox put together at U.S. Cellular Field and steadily contained a power-hungry lineup fighting for its postseason.
"It was like he was in his backyard pitching," first baseman Carlos Pena marveled.
Sonnanstine didn't carry the national attention of his fellow Rays starters into the season. Nor did he carry the same regular-season success as his White Sox counterpart, Gavin Floyd. What Sonnanstine took into his postseason debut was a level head and a slew of ways to attack the strike zone.
Armed with that, he pounded the White Sox out of the postseason and helped pitch the Rays into a matchup against the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, where the back end of Tampa Bay's rotation isn't likely to be overlooked again.
Sonnanstine still won't garner nearly the same attention as his counterparts, but he's an example of how important fastball command can be, whatever the velocity.
"He is a winner," Maddon repeated. "He is well thought-out. And again, you have a lot of faith in him. The guys love playing behind him."
To Maddon, Sonnanstine is the living example of something the great former coach Marcel Lachemann taught Maddon early in his career: Pay attention to the guys who win consistently in the Minor Leagues, whatever the radar gun says. Sonnanstine won a job in the Rays' rotation and rewarded them for it.
He won a spot in the four-man postseason rotation over the gifted young right-hander Edwin Jackson. Monday was his turn to reward Maddon's faith again.
The bite on his slider and breaking ball was nasty early, as Jim Thome and Ken Griffey Jr. could attest after swinging through them for key strikeouts. The base of his outing, however, was the fastball and its precision to set up the rest.
Sonnanstine's command forced them to be ready for the fastball and adjust from there.
"It's really key for me," Sonnanstine said, "especially early in the count. I felt like I used my fastball to get ahead of a lot of hitters. And that kind of puts them in a little bit of a defense mode."
Better than two-thirds of his pitches went for strikes -- 53 out of 75, including 12 out of 21 first pitches. Take away his first-inning walk to Jermaine Dye, and he didn't reach a three-ball count over the rest of his 5 2/3 innings.
Yet the only first pitch the White Sox were able to attack was his last, which Dye sent out to left for a solo homer with two outs in the sixth. Paul Konerko's third-inning single and sixth-inning solo homer were the only other hits he allowed.
Sonnanstine made Chicago try to beat him. When Dye and Konerko did, there was no one on base to make enough of an impact to get the White Sox back into the game.
"With those guys coming up and they keep flashing those stats up on the board -- the 34 home runs [for Dye], the slugging percentage -- and he's just doing it with curveballs and fastballs that are well placed," Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said. "Tremendous job."
To Sonnanstine, though, the key was to not make it any bigger than his other outings. The consistency in approach wasn't just mechanical or strategic, but mental.
"I knew this was a big game coming in," Sonnanstine said. "And I tried not to, you know, make it up bigger than I could handle. So I just tried to keep an even keel and work to my strengths."
His strengths can be easily overlooked. They only get noticed in the win column.
"When a guy wins consistently, pay attention to him," Maddon said. "That's what he has done. He is a winner."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.