Poor start leaves it out of reach

Andy Sonnanstine struggles for the Rays, who look flat against the lowly Rangers.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
Published August 11, 2007

ARLINGTON, Texas - As if the past two games in Detroit weren't enough proof about how important good starting pitching is to this Devil Rays team, let Friday night in steamy Texas be another illustration.

"Totally," manager Joe Maddon said. "You're right. Amen."

With James Shields and Scott Kazmir dealing, the Rays were able to beat the contending Tigers in back-to-back games. But with Andy Sonnanstine struggling Friday, they lost - and looked flat in doing so - to the lowly Rangers, who have the American League's second-worst record.

The final was 7-4, though Sonnanstine didn't deserve all the blame, not with the bullpen leaking again, the defense lacking and the offense stalling, leaving 10 men on as the Rays dropped to 44-71.

But there is legitimate concern about the rookie right-hander who has gone 11 games and two full months since his last - and only - win in his second big-league start and seen his ERA swell to 6.35, specifically in his inability to be effective with his slider and changeup, two pitches that were key to his minor-league success.

"He made some bad pitches with his breaking ball that they hurt us with," Maddon said. "We just have to sharpen up his breaking ball, and we need to have him pitch with his fastball more. That's what I see as being the primary concern - that the breaking ball is just in bad spots."

A three-run homer by Frank Catalanotto on a hanging changeup, right after the Rays had gone ahead 3-2, was certainly the standout mistake - "That kind of took me out of my comfort zone a little bit," Sonnanstine said - but the 24-year-old made others, allowing five runs on seven hits in less than five innings.

And it might have been worse save for a spectacular diving catch by centerfielder B.J. Upton to rob Michael Young of at least a double in the fifth. It was payback, though, because Upton just missed on equally acrobatic bid in the third, leading to the Rangers' first two runs.

Sonnanstine agreed with Maddon's analysis of his repertoire, but asking him to throw fewer breaking balls and rely more on his fastball could be troubling, too.

Sonnanstine usually tops out in the 88-89 mph range, hardly the stuff to overwhelm big-league hitters, and doing so would be a departure from what got him here, a cunning package of different speeds, arm angles and looks.

"I can get away with more breaking pitches in the minors, and I'm learning that that's not going to cut it here," Sonnanstine said. "I'll go back and watch the video and try to work on some things."

As hot and uncomfortable as the night was - a first-pitch temperature of 95 degrees - it was not without some redeeming value.

Sizzling Carl Crawford had two more hits - that's 20, and a .606 average, in his past seven games - to extend his hitting streak to 11 games and his major-league best average since the All-Star break to .432, and resurgent catcher Dioner Navarro had three more hits, raising his average to .209.

But like most games, it comes down to what happens on the mound.

"We just have to pitch better on a consistent basis," Maddon said.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/rays.

Rangers 7

Rays 4