Hard work, athleticism sustain Sonnanstine

PHILADELPHIA -- In Manny Burriss' freshman year at Kent State University, he met Andy Sonnanstine. Burriss, who had been recruited for his speed and athleticism, was the team's new shortstop. But when he saw his pitcher field the ball with so much grace, Burriss was awed.

"If a pitcher is that much more athletic than I am, and I'm the shortstop, I don't know how far my career is going to go," said Burriss, who's now with the San Francisco Giants. "He's an incredible athlete."

Sonnanstine had to be athletic because he has never had the nastiest, fastest or most deceptive pitch. Instead, he has thrown strikes and worked harder than anyone on his team. His confidence and hustle are, in part, what have taken him far -- from a small-town Ohio upbringing to Kent State, to professional baseball as a 13th-round draft pick of Tampa Bay in 2004, to pitching in Game 4 of the World Series on Sunday night.

Sonnanstine will head out to the mound in a hitters' park with his team down 2-1. He'll try to avoid a loss that would make the Rays' odds in this series nearly impossible to overcome.

It may be a lot for a 25-year-old to shoulder, but those who know him aren't concerned.

"I think the higher the stakes for him, the better," Rays reliever J.P. Howell said. "Since we're down, I love having him going out there [Sunday] to pitch. He's going to be at ease, and this environment won't really get to him.

"That's one of his attributes, along with working hard."

Burriss saw that hard-working mentality firsthand in college. He and Sonnanstine were teammates for only a year, but the two became close friends, and Burriss considered Sonnanstine an older brother. Sonnanstine sometimes picked up the shortstop from class so he didn't miss practice, or shepherded him through the season and school. And Burriss marveled at how Sonnanstine made "a Web gem play each time" a team tried to bunt on him. After Sonnanstine was drafted in 2004, he returned to Kent State that fall to practice with his team. In addition to throwing bullpen sessions, Sonnanstine would get in the cage for 90-minute batting practice sessions, telling the players that he didn't want to be embarrassed if he ever were traded to a National League team and had to bat on a regular basis.

And after those sessions, all the players would shoot around a basketball at the rec center, where Sonnanstine would practice 3-pointers over and over, then dunk in pickup games.

"It was always incredible to watch somebody that athletic on the mound," Burriss said. "It always seemed like he was in control."

Sonnanstine knew he had to work at everything related to his game to have success. He admits he'll use any tool he can to gain an edge because his stuff doesn't permit him to dominate. Sonnanstine will work quickly, eliminating the time between his pitches. Instead, he'll pause in his delivery or alter his tempo. And he continues to work hard at fielding his position.

"I've had quite a few naysayers in my career," he said. "So I kind of take that as a chip on my shoulder and I feel like I have something to prove at every level, and I think that's helped me have success."

Success is measured in different ways, of course, but Sonnanstine was a 13-game winner during the regular season. So far this postseason, he's won his two starts, both on the road, and has a 3.46 ERA. Although his spot in the rotation seemed to be in peril all season because someone else always had the better, sexier pitches, Sonnanstine just kept going out, winning games and throwing strikes.

"The guy is a winner," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "A guy like Andy to get drafted in the first place takes excellent scouting, as far as I'm concerned. You have to read into a guy's heart. And you get people who always win and continue to win. It shouldn't surprise anybody."

On Sunday, Sonnanstine will start for the first time in 12 days. He said that the time off between starts in the postseason has been helpful. But don't think he's a slacker. He showed up for spring training a month early to work his arm and his body into shape. And the fire that drives him was lit long before that.

"I used to play pingpong with my dad, and he would never let me win," Sonnanstine said. "I had that fire. And I think that's why I'm so competitive now."

Up to this point, his competitive nature has served him well. Sonnanstine has one more night this season, at a critical time for the Rays, to use it to his advantage.

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached via e-mail at amy.k.nelson@espn3.com.