A Kent State – World Series connection

Josh Johnston

WATCH a video about Andy Sonnanstine’s performance in the American League Championship Series on Oct. 6.

Andy Sonnanstine came to the Kent State baseball team in 2002 as a tall, lanky right-hander from Wadsworth. The 6-foot-3 pitcher threw in the low 80s – nothing that would light up a scout’s radar gun. Still, he had a knack for throwing strikes and getting batters out.

But neither his pitching coach nor his manager could have predicted at the time where Sonnanstine would be six years later – a starter for the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2008 World Series.

“What he’s doing now,” said Rick Rembielak, former Kent State baseball manager and current Wake Forest manager, “he goes against the norm. He’s not a guy who’s blowing guys away, throwing low — to – mid-90s the way most guys do nowadays. What made him a great pitcher, especially in his last year (at Kent State), was he had great control. He changed speeds on hitters and kept them off balance.”

Sonnanstine has used his control to record wins for the Rays this postseason. His pitching in Game 4 of the American League Division Series helped send Tampa Bay to the AL Championship Series against Boston.

Last week, Sonnanstine allowed six hits in 7 1/3 innings to earn his second postseason win and the Rays’ third win over Boston.

Sonnanstine’s 13-9 regular season record contributed to Tampa Bay’s best season ever. Never finishing fewer than 18 games out of first place before this season, the Rays won the AL East this year with a 97-65 record.

“I think he’s done a great job,” said Mike Birkbeck, pitching coach for Kent State. “He throws strikes. He works very fast. He doesn’t do anything to help the other team start rallies.

Sonnanstine’s Rise to

the World Series

In the four years since leaving Kent State, Andy Sonnanstine has risen quickly through the ranks of professional baseball. Here’s a look:

June 6, 2004: Tampa Bay selects Sonnanstine in the 13th round of the amateur draft.

Fall 2006: Sonnanstine named AA Southern League Right-Handed Pitcher of the Year.

June 5, 2007: Three years after his last start as a Flash, Sonnanstine makes his major league debut for the Rays against Toronto. In seven innings he struck out five but received a no-decision.

June 11, 2007: Sonnanstine strikes out seven straight batters in his first major league win. He racked up 10 K’s total in seven innings of work.

Oct. 6, 2008: The Rays beat the Chicago White Sox in Game 4 in the ALDS. Sonnanstine pitches 5 2/3 innings for his first postseason win.

Oct. 15, 2008: Tampa Bay wins its third game against the Red Sox behind Sonnanstine’s throwing.

Oct. 26, 2008: Sonnanstine is expected to start Game 4 of the World Series against Philadelphia.

“If you’re going to beat Andy Sonnanstine, you’re going to have to get four or five hits in an inning because he’s not going to walk guys, he’s not going to hit guys. You’re going to have to earn your way around the bases.”

The Rays picked up Sonnanstine in the 13th round of the 2004 draft, the 375th pick overall. The calling to professional baseball came only days after he pitched some of his best games at Kent State.

“(He) pitched a lot of big games while he was here, and he seemed to thrive on those types of situations,” Birkbeck said. “His legend was established here at Kent State the last 10 days of his career: the Mid-American Conference tournament in ’04 and then his outing against Notre Dame in the regional.”

In two outings during the MAC tournament, Sonnanstine threw two complete games, striking out 21 batters and posting a 1.05 ERA. Kent State won the MAC championship, and Sonnanstine was named the Most Valuable Player for the tournament.

He struck out seven and gave up one unearned run in seven innings of work in the NCAA regional tournament game. Rembielak called Sonnanstine’s performance one of the best he’s ever seen.

“He just kept (Notre Dame) off balance,” Rembielak said. “They could never get good swings off him. I know he frustrated the heck out of hitters because they could never really settle in. He was coming in from different angles, he kept changing speeds – he just never buckled under that pressure.”

Birkbeck said Sonnanstine always had dreams of being a major leaguer while at Kent State.

“He is a baseball junkie,” Birkbeck said. “He just loved the game. When we recruited him, he was a position player, loved to swing the bat. He just loves baseball. Certainly he had those dreams of being at the next level.”

Sonnanstine’s success has already inspired the next generation of Kent State baseball players.

“To see him out there, knowing that he was doing the same things we’re doing not long ago, it’s a cool thing to think about,” junior pitcher Kyle Smith said. “It gives us motivation to think that we could be there just as easy. It’s definitely a goal of mine to follow in his footsteps.”

Contact sports reporter Josh Johnston at [email protected].