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05/19/2006 9:00 AM ET
Faces on the Field: Andy Sonnanstine
Versatile, flexible hurler keeps hitters off balance
Andy Sonnanstine's strikeout-to-walk ratio was a mind-boggling 178-to-18 in 2005. (Montgomery Biscuits)

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Andy Sonnanstine doesn't often resort to subterfuge when he's on the mound. Oh, but when the young Montgomery right-hander does, it certainly makes for an entertaining sequence of events.

His matinee outing against Birmingham on Wednesday was just such an occasion. The Biscuits were nursing a 2-0 lead when the Barons put runners on the corners with one out in the sixth inning. Sonnanstine, who normally comes over the top with his delivery, proceeded to work Micah Schnurstein to a two-strike count before dropping down sidearm to strike out the Birmingham third baseman.

Sonnanstine closed out the inning and pitched two more, putting forth his best effort of the season in Montgomery's 2-0 victory. Tampa Bay's 13th-round pick out of Kent State (2004) scattered four hits, fanned four and walked only three, but his little moment of skullduggery against Schnurstein certainly proved to be one of the highlights.

"It's more of a feel thing," said Sonnanstine, who improved to 2-3 and lowered his ERA to 3.46 with Wednesday's effort. "Sometimes I'll do it on the first pitch of a game just to change things up and give the batter a different look. I'll throw three different pitches at three different arm angles sometimes. When you do that, the percentages get smaller of them guessing what's coming.

"Sometimes I guess it can mess with your mechanics, but I always try to stay pretty mechanically sound. And with the success I've had at the lower levels, the pitching coaches I've had have been tentative to tweak my mechanics or make major changes."

Sonnanstine's obvious talent -- he led the organization last year in wins (15-5), ERA (2.98) and strikeouts (178) while splitting time between Southwest Michigan of the Midwest League and Visalia of the California League -- is only part of the reason he's able to alter his delivery occasionally and be effective. Some of what he's been able to accomplish on the mound is a result of the fact that he's double-jointed.

Ask the youngster to demonstrate and he gladly bends his elbows backwards. While some would think this makes for a neat carnival trick, Sonnanstine says it helps him when he drops down into a sidearm delivery.

"The first time I noticed that it helped my pitching was when I was in high school," Sonnanstine said. "I had a buddy who threw sidearm and I thought I should try it, because if you change the window out of which the ball is coming, it gives the hitter a different look. For the most part, it's real effective unless the hitter guesses that you're going to drop down."

Occasionally, he knows he's caught a batter off-guard. Earlier this season he dropped down on a first pitch to Mississippi's Eddie Perez, a former Major Leaguer, and the reaction was noticeable.

"I dropped down for a fastball and he stared at me for five seconds," Sonnanstine said. "Here's a guy who caught Greg Maddux. It makes me feel good to freeze a guy and get in his head a little bit."

Sonnanstine's ability to surprise hitters is just part of why he's been successful. Primarily a fastball-slider pitcher, he doesn't overwhelm anyone with his high-80s, low-90s speed. But his control is almost always perfect. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was a mind-boggling 178-to-18 last year, and is 292-to-38 through 54 professional games.

The three walks he issued on Wednesday were a season high and marked only the third time in his career that he's walked that many in a game. That can most certainly be excused, though, considering the outcome and considering he's been working on adding a third pitch to his repertoire.

Sonnanstine has been toying with a splitter and a changeup but has yet to get completely comfortable with either pitch. While he'd like to add both to his arsenal, the Devil Rays are attempting to limit his pitch expansion to either/or.

"I'm teetering between them now," Sonnanstine said. "When I seem to be leaning toward one, my next start the opposite pitch is dynamite. I've been trying to use both, but they seem to think I should go with just one. I would love to have both, though, because it would help me even more.

"I think I need to develop that third pitch before I can go to the next level, so this is a good spot for me. I don't want to get too far ahead of myself. I've seen guys get rushed and their confidence gets shaken."

As long as he has some trickery he can rely on, odds are that Sonnanstine won't get shaken any time soon.

Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.