Willis takes major step in comeback

By Jason Beck
Updated: May 14, 2009

Dontrelle Willis

Dontrelle Willis

MINNEAPOLIS — Well before Dontrelle Willis took the mound for his Major League return Wednesday night, Tigers manager Jim Leyland laid out a simple goal, the same he has for any pitcher: Give the team a chance to win.

As Willis left with two outs the fifth, having allowed four runs on eight hits, he had given the Tigers a shot at taking this game — the first of many shots, it turned out. He just couldn’t have imagined what kind of game it would end up being.

“I kind of feel like I pitched three days ago,” Willis said after Joe Crede’s 13th-inning grand slam sent the Tigers to a 14-10 loss. “That’s how long the game went today.”

Willis was long gone before most of this game’s twists and turns, but his work kept the game close. Considering Justin Morneau’s two-run homer put the Twins up in the first inning, it had the chance to become lopsided early.

Willis began the season on the disabled list with anxiety disorder, but has said his main issue was simply not pitching well — both during his wild 2008 season and in Spring Training. When he rejoined the Tigers, he said his biggest lesson from doctors and club officials was learning to go one pitch at a time and put bad pitches behind him. His best example, he said, came after giving up a home run.

Morneau’s two-out drive to center field gave him that early test.

“That’s the only pitch that I really want back,” Willis said of his 93-mph fastball that wandered over the plate, “and I really don’t want it back.”

Last year, his outing probably would’ve fallen apart after that in a struggle to reclaim the strike zone. On Wednesday, he went back to his mix of speeds, retiring Michael Cuddyer to end the first inning, then pitching a scoreless second.

“It happened in the first,” Willis said. “I wasn’t just going to throw in the towel. We still have a lot of ballgame. You still can give our team confidence that we can get back in the ballgame. As soon as the other guy got in trouble, we’re still in the ballgame.

“I think it’s contagious as far as continuing to battle. If the team sees you battling, then everybody goes and follows suit.”

Offensively, they eventually came around. Defensively, it took a while, but the Tigers began to respond to Willis’ effort.

Willis’ quick reactions snared Mike Redmond’s liner back up the middle with two on and nobody out in the first, starting a rally-killing double play. After three straight hits led to another run in the third on Joe Mauer’s single, Willis hit one corner after another to get an inning-ending double play.

“There was a point when I looked over at [shortstop] Adam [Everett],” third baseman Brandon Inge said, “and I said, ‘He’s back. It looks like he’s back now.’ I remember catching him last year, and pitch by pitch, if you take away the location, he has the movement on it. He has the velocity, and he definitely has the ability to be a dominant pitcher. It’s just he wasn’t throwing strikes last year. That’s the only thing.”

Willis’ two walks both came on close full-count pitches, and he threw 53 of his 87 pitches for strikes. He had two other three-ball counts on a night when the Twins were poised to wait him out to hit the strike zone.

“I was actually pleased,” Leyland said. “I thought he kept himself together pretty good. He was around the plate pretty good. He didn’t seem to get rattled at all.

“We might need to tweak a couple things, but overall, I was pleased.”

Though Willis topped 100 pitches in both of his rehab outings at Triple-A Toledo, the Tigers did not want to go that deep with him on this night. Leyland pulled him for Zach Miner once Willis retired Justin Morneau for the second out of the fifth, bringing up a string of five straight right-handed hitters.

“I wish I could’ve went deeper,” Willis said, “but the more I pitch, hopefully I’ll earn the confidence of Skip to let me go out there and continue to battle, especially on a night like this that nobody could’ve predicted.”

That said, after Miner retired Joe Crede to end the fifth-inning threat, Willis greeted Miner two steps in front of the dugout with a hug. Once Inge homered in the next inning to put Detroit in front, Willis was left with a no-decision.

He’ll take that and go into his next start. His rotation spot comes up next Tuesday against Texas, and he isn’t looking at this as the end of his comeback.

“It ain’t a milestone,” Willis said. “This is where I want to be.”