BY JOHN SNODGRASS

Times Bulletin Sports Editor

sports@timesbulletin.com

VAN WERT COUNTY - The Tampa Bay Rays have caught the attention of baseball fans across the country this season by going from the cellar of the American League East to the World Series. For one Van Wert County family, the Rays' success has a personal connection.

Andy Sonnanstine, the son of Lincolnview graduates Don and Joyce (Keltner) Sonnanstine, has been a staple in the Rays' starting rotation this season. Sonnanstine went 13-9 for Tampa this year, with an earned run average of 4.38. He started 32 games for the AL champions, collecting 124 strikeouts while walking just 37. His best regular-season outing came back on April 19 when he pitched a complete game shutout against the Chicago White Sox.

In the postseason, Sonnanstine has been a linchpin for the surprising Rays. In his two starts this October he is 2-0 with an ERA of 3.46. The 6-foot-3, 185-pound Sonnanstine pitched the fourth game of both the AL division series and the AL championship series. He is also slated to start Game 4 of the Fall Classic this Sunday evening.

"Its exciting for us, but I also know how hard he's worked to get there," Sonnanstine's uncle Larry Keltner said. "To see him have success at this level is just phenomenal."

The 13th-round draft pick's roots run deep in Van Wert County. Sonnanstine's mother is one of eight children, many of whom still live in the county. His uncles Richard and Larry Keltner, his wife Kathy, and aunts Deb (Keltner) Smith and Janice (Keltner) Jones all call Van Wert home. As does Sonnanstine's grandmother Margaret Keltner. The family forms one of the strongest - if not only - Rays contingencies in Northwest Ohio.

"This year has been such an exciting dream season," Smith said. "They weren't expected to do anything. And (in the past) they haven't. It's been very difficult to be a Rays fan until this year. We are just excited beyond belief."

Indeed.

In 2007 Tampa Bay finished the season with a 66 and 96 record. The squad finished the year 30 games behind the division winner, and eventual World Series champion, the Boston Red Sox. This year, however, has been a completely different story.

The Florida squad finished the 2008 season with a record of 97-65, giving the Rays the most wins and the highest winning percentage in team history. All the winning also provided the 11-year-old franchise with its first ever division title and first ever postseason appearance. Something many baseball fans thought was a near impossibility in a division that has been owned by historical and financial powerhouses the New York Yankees and the aforementioned Red Sox.

Even some of Sonnanstine's family finds the success of the franchise amazing.

"We pretty much figured if they had a .500 or better season that they would be doing fantastic," Larry Keltner said. "They're building. They're a very young team, but they added some veterans that even Andy will say really helped them out. (Veteran) Troy Percival, is one of them. He helped solidify the bullpen, which was their biggest downfall last year."

With the additions of veterans like Percival, the Rays seem to have turned the corner earlier than most expected. But don't be fooled, Tampa builds from the inside and trusts its younger talent. Sonnanstine is a prime example of that.

A native of Wadsworth, Ohio and a Wadsworth High School alum, Sonnanstine played collegiately at Kent State University until he was drafted by the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays with the 375th pick (fourth pick of the 13th round) of the 2004 Major League Baseball draft. The right-hander made his first career major league start in Toronto on June 5, 2007 against the Blue Jays, picking up a no-decision. He recorded his first win five days later in a 10-strikeout performance against state-rival, the Florida Marlins. In his rookie season, Sonnanstine went 6-10 with a 5.85 ERA. He struck out 97 batters while walking 26. A year later, the 25-year-old is one of the organization's brightest young stars.

"It's been just a dream," Margaret Keltner said. "I have to almost pinch myself to believe it happened. Little did I think that when his grandpa and I went to watch him play T-ball that he'd ever be pitching in the World Series."

While Sunday night will be the biggest start in the righty's young career he already has two huge games under his belt. In his division series start against the Chicago White Sox on October 6, he pitched 5.2 innings, striking out four while walking just one in a 6-2 Ray victory. In that outing he allowed just three hits and two runs (a pair of solo homes) with a 3.18 ERA. In his second playoff start, this one against the Red Sox in the championship series, Sonnanstine went 7.1 innings. He struck out two and walked one while allowing four runs (three earned) on six hits in the Rays' 13-4 blowout win.

Sonnanstine's ALCS victory pulled the Rays to within a game of the World Series. The 3-games-to-1 lead over the Sox didn't hold though. Boston - which came back from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS and a 3-1 deficit to beat the Cleveland Indians last season - has made a name for itself in postseason, comeback lore. And this year was no different.

Down 7-0 in the seventh inning of Game 5, the Red Sox figured out a way to pull out an 8-7 win. They also won Game 6 (4-2) to force a deciding Game 7. The Rays held on in the final series game, winning 3-1, to advance to baseball's biggest stage.

"I did think, 'Boston's not going to let them do it this year,'" Smith said. "They're known for coming back, like what they did with the Indians last year. There were a few moments. I was like, you know, this was a great season and these guys are going to be back next year, they're not going anywhere. That was a big scare - Game 5."

Larry Keltner seconded the thought.

"It was like a flashback to last year," he said of the Rays' performances in in the latter games of the ALCS. "The starting pitcher would get them to the seventh or eighth inning and then the bullpen would fold up."

The success of Sonnanstine has been a whirlwind for most of the family members. The Keltner clan, those here in Van Wert and those around the state, have gone all over to see their relative pitch - Cleveland, Tampa, Detroit, New York, Toronto, Boston. In fact, grandma Keltner even took in her first major league game.

"It was great," Margaret Keltner said of her trip to Cleveland. " ... It was just thrilling to watch him."

When asked to describe Sonnanstine most of his relatives used terms like quite and focused. Fitting for a guy who, when he was still in little league, drew a picture of himself in baseball gear for his father. On the picture he wrote the following: 'I'm going to be in the big leagues one day, dad.'

The Sonnanstines still have that grade schooler doodle. It's framed at their house in Wadsworth.

Despite the lifestyle that comes with being a major league player, his family still says he's the same kid they watched go from grade school to college.

"He was always real good with the little kids," Jones said. "I know when we would go up for Christmas holiday, Sami (Jones' youngest daughter) would hang out with Andy. And it didn't always have to be baseball. He plays guitar and she played guitar with him several times. They'd shoot pool or they'd just hang out and talk. She just idolizes him, not because he's a baseball player, but because he's the good person he really is."

The Sonnanstine fanbase is about as loyal as it comes. They do just about everything they can to follow a team that plays more than 1,000 miles away - travel, watch games over the Internet, even follow the Rays' progress on their cell phones. With Tampa making the playoffs, it has allowed the family to see or listen to their favorite team more frequently. Come Sunday, Team Sonnanstine will be getting together to watch their favorite player on the biggest night of his life.

They wouldn't have it any other way.

"It's the experience of a lifetime and if we can't get there in person we're going to be there in spirit and watch him on TV," Smith said.