July 25, 2016

Mostly clear

Happy homecoming

Andrew Dolph/Medina-Gazette
Andy Sonnanstine warms up in the outfield prior to Tampa Bay’s first game against the Indians.

CLEVELAND — Andy Sonnanstine has only been a part of Major League Baseball for three-plus weeks, but he can’t get the sweet taste out of his mouth. Returning to his hometown for the first time since being called up by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on June 1, Sonnanstine — a 2001 Wadsworth graduate — is scheduled to pitch Monday against the Indians.The 6-foot-3, 185-pounder, who is 1-2 with a 5.85 ERA for the Devil Rays, has endured highs and lows during his short time in the bigs and is keeping his confidence high by staying on an even keel.“The level of competition (is the biggest difference),” Sonnanstine said Friday. “I’m playing with some of the best athletes I’ve ever seen. It’s the same game, just better hitters.”For the first two months of the campaign, Sonnanstine, the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2006, tore it up with a 6-4 record with a 2.66 ERA at AAA-Durham.

The back end of the Tampa Bay rotation was getting pounded, and the two factors came together as Jae Seo was being designated for assignment and Sonnanstine called up.

A 13th-round pick by the Rays in 2003, Sonnanstine took a no-decision in his first major league start against the Blue Jays on June 5. He left the contest after seven innings with a 10-6 lead, but the bullpen, the worst in the majors with a 5.66 ERA, could not hold it.

He bounced back with a dominating performance against the Marlins with 10 strikeouts, thus picking up his first big league victory.

After a rough outing at Colorado, Sonnanstine has been steady over his past two starts.

According to the former Kent State star, video analysis has been a large help in his transition.

“Watching my games and critiquing my game is more available here,” said Sonnanstine, who was 21-8 at the prep level for Wadsworth High. “I’ve learned not to change anything and use what got me here.”

What got the 24-year-old this far is the ability to pound the strike zone despite not possessing overpowering stuff.

His 27-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 32 1/3 innings of work is second among all starting pitchers in baseball, trailing only Cleveland’s Paul Byrd, who has a 9.60 mark compared to Sonnanstine’s 9.00.

“(The key is) being aggressive, throwing strikes, and to go out there every fifth day with some confidence,” Sonnanstine said.

Part of the learning process is learning how to battle some of the best hitters in the game.

Sonnanstine has already faced two players he grew up watching: Toronto’s Frank Thomas and former Cleveland star Jim Thome, who is with the Chicago White Sox. Both were cited by Sonnanstine as players who stuck out in his mind out of all the batters he has faced.

Thomas went 1-for-3 against Sonnanstine in the June 5 debut, while Thome was 1-for-3 with a pair of strikeouts on June 27.

“Frank just reached (the 500-home run club) milestone and I’m glad I wasn’t part of that milestone,” a chuckling Sonnanstine said. “In facing Jim Thome, I watched him play in this stadium (Jacobs Field). It’s a little surreal.”

Grindle may be reached at 330-721-4043 or sports@ohio.net.

Albert Grindle About Albert Grindle

Albert Grindle is a sportswriter for the Gazette. He can be reached at 330-721-4043 or agrindle@medina-gazette.com.