Rays drop opener to Rangers

Rays drop opener to Rangers

ARLINGTON -- Long ago, Boston Braves fans popularized the mantra, "Spahn and Sain, then pray for rain."

Some 60 years later, Devil Rays fans might mutter, "Shields and Kazmir, then shed a tear."

Much as Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain were immortalized in verse for giving the Braves their weekly chances to win, so too are James Shields and Scott Kazmir providing the Rays' only consistently competitive starts.

That troubling pattern continued in Friday's opener of a three-game series in Texas. Hoping to cobble together their first three-game road winning streak in 23 months, the Rays instead saw rookie right-hander Andy Sonnanstine cough up a one-run lead in the fifth, extend his winless streak to 11 consecutive starts, and send his team reeling toward a 7-4 loss before 28,314 at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

The Rays rode the pitching of Shields (9-7) and Kazmir (9-7) to victory in the final two games of a four-game series in Detroit, making Friday's clash in Texas their chance to win three in a row on the road for the first time since Sept. 25-28, 2005. A tiebreaking single by Brendan Harris in the top of the fifth even staked Sonnanstine to a 3-2 lead midway through the game, after the Rays erased a 2-0 deficit.

But Sonnanstine (1-8), wasn't up to the task. He opened the bottom of the fifth by allowing three consecutive hits -- a double by Jarrod Saltalamacchia, a single by Ramon Vazquez and a three-run homer by Frank Catalanotto that put the Rangers ahead to stay.

After Dioner Navarro doubled and scored to pull the Rays within 5-4 in the top of the sixth, Catalanotto struck again. His two-run single in the bottom of the inning off Rays reliever Grant Balfour capped a career-high five-RBI night.

The Rays lead the Majors with 71 losses and it is easy to see why. They are 26-23 in games started by Shields and Kazmir, but 18-48 with anyone else on the mound.

"We've just got to pitch better, on a more consistent basis," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We like these guys we have out there. Their preparation is good. They've all done good things at times. They are good guys.

"We just have to gain the consistency. We have to be able to execute better."

Friday's game seemingly hinged on two pitches by Sonnanstine.

The first, a cut fastball to Saltalamacchia starting the fifth, was considered a good pitch by the right-hander. At least until Saltalamacchia flicked his bat and drove the ball into the right-field corner for a leadoff double.

"I threw a pretty good cutter," Sonnanstine said. "He surprised me. He's got a real quick bat."

After Vazquez followed with an infield single off the glove of third baseman Akinori Iwamura, Sonnanstine was surprised again. This time by Catalanotto, who blasted a hanging changeup just over the wall in the right-field corner, turning the Rays' 3-2 lead into a 5-3 deficit.

"That kind of took me out of my comfort zone," admitted Sonnanstine, who has lost eight consecutive decisions.

Sonnanstine's own throwing error allowed the next hitter, Ian Kinsler, to reach base. Michael Young followed with a deep drive to the gap in left-center field, where only a spectacular diving catch by B.J. Upton saved another run. With that, Sonnanstine was yanked, having thrown just 78 pitches.

Sonnanstine hasn't won since June 10, when he posted a 9-4 victory over Florida in his second big-league start. His ERA has swollen to 6.35, matching that of 11-game loser Edwin Jackson for the worst in the Rays' starting rotation. Jackson (2-11) is scheduled to face the Rangers on Saturday night, followed by rookie Jason Hammel (1-1, 6.09) on Sunday.

Outside of twin aces Shields and Kazmir, it is a thin deck from which Maddon must deal. But he said the club is committed to the remainder of the rotation -- for now -- in hopes of seeing improved results in 2008.

For Sonnanstine, Maddon said the solution involves throwing his fastball more and cutting down on free baserunners. The rookie only walked one on Friday, but it was Vazquez, the Rangers' No. 9 hitter, who wound up scoring on Young's two-run double in the third.

"We just can't do that in those situations," Maddon said. "We shot ourselves in the foot there. But I have not lost confidence in him."

Maddon also would have preferred to see his starter challenge Catalanotto with his fastball on that crucial fifth-inning at-bat, rather than get beat on a lesser pitch.

"The breaking ball is what's getting him in trouble," Maddon said. "We have got to get beyond that with him. He has to make better pitches in those moments."

Sonnanstine said he agreed with his manager "100 percent."

"I feel like maybe I'm going to the well a little too often with my slider and changeup," Sonnanstine said. "That's something I'm going to continue to work on. I can get away with more breaking pitches in the Minors. I'm learning that's not going to cut it here."

Painful lessons, to be sure. And Sonnanstine admitted he, Jackson and Hammel aren't oblivious to what has been happening on the nights Shields or Kazmir don't work.

"Definitely," he said. "I really wanted to get us a three-game winning streak and try to build something here. Instead, it felt like we took another step back. That was a winnable ballgame, if I don't give up three runs in the fifth."

Rays outfielder Carl Crawford went 2-for-5, extending his hitting streak to 11 consecutive games, two shy of his career high.

And, for what it's worth, when Sonnanstine faced Saltalamacchia in the third inning, it tied this season's record for most last-name letters (25) in an MLB pitcher-batter confrontation. Saltalamacchia was part of the previous records when he faced the Dodgers' Chad Billingsley and Mark Hendrickson.

Ken Daley is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.