D-Train focusing on pitching

By Jason Beck
Updated: February 26, 2010

LAKELAND, Fla. — Friday was Dontrelle Willis’ first chance to read how hitters react to a pitch. Everyone else was reading his reactions.

It isn’t hard to do.

“Oh, Lord,” he exclaimed as outfield prospect Casper Wells took one of his fastballs deep to left.

Miguel Cabrera said the same thing as he watched his friend and teammate from the bench. Others were no doubt thinking it.

They had better thoughts when Willis broke a fastball in on Wells the next time he stepped into the batter’s box. They were more impressed when Willis followed with a sinker that Wells hit meekly for a grounder.

“I like it, I like it, I like it,” yelled Cabrera, who broke into the Majors with Willis in Florida in 2003.

Willis nodded in his approval, as he always does after a good pitch.

“I figured you out now,” he said jokingly to Wells.

Nobody has been able to say that about Willis the past couple years. But that’s not the issue in this camp right now.

This is who Willis is, this enthusiastic left-hander, and the Tigers want him to be himself. But compared with the last couple years, this is a little different. The delivery is a little subdued, much more fluid and much easier on tempo. The body language looks more positive. The focus is a little more sharp.

“When you slow the game down and really take a step back,” Willis said, “I was able to see things that I wasn’t able to see last year. Casper alone, after the home run, I threw a fastball in and he had trouble with it.”

“And then I was able to go back with that, throw a sinker and get a ground ball. So those are little things that you can see when you slow the game down and really just take a step back.”

Willis would rather shift his focus to hitters. He’s had plenty of time in the spotlight himself.

What all this means for his game, nobody knows. Nobody can pretend to know how this Spring Training will turn out for Willis. His odds of regaining his old success, obviously, seem long after two years of struggles, disabled-list stints, starts and stops at Triple-A Toledo.

Even a return to the big leagues might not be enough to soothe many fans who remember his control woes resurfacing last June against Pittsburgh.

At the same time, a look at Willis suggests next to nothing of a pitcher with his career in question. He’s in tremendous physical shape. He’s one of the most popular players in the clubhouse, right in the middle where the starters have their lockers. He talks with everybody, and everybody talks with him.

“I think Dontrelle looks like a totally different person this spring,” manager Jim Leyland said. “I think he looks relaxed. He’s been throwing great. He’s got good energy. He’s fun to be around. I’m really happy with him. I’m happy how he’s going about it. He just looks like a more confident person.”

Willis can’t promise success. All he can do is try. If this is his last shot, he’s going to throw everything he has into this comeback attempt, more than some people in his situation might reasonably do.

If he doesn’t make it, it won’t be for lack of effort. To him, it won’t be for any reason other than he didn’t pitch well.

“My personality, I’m never going to be a person that makes excuses for myself,” Willis said. “That’s what I don’t really like, when they say [anxiety disorder].”

He never actually used the term by name, but after two DL stints last year, the term is there. It might be perception or semantics. What might be called anxiety, he calls worrying about things other than his game.

That’s a difference with him now, he said.

“You know, the biggest thing is not getting away from who you are,” he said. “I fell into it. I got away from who I was. I think I got too caught up worrying about other things, outside things as far as how the hitters are, instead of worrying about myself.”

“And then, when you get into a situation where you’re in trouble, I wasn’t able to correct that.

Now I’m just worrying about myself, and throwing the ball over the plate and making people adjust to me.”

Willis didn’t throw the kitchen sink at hitters Friday, nor did he try to paint the corners. He simplified his approach to throwing fastballs and sinkers, and aiming for segments of the plate rather than corners.

He told catcher Alex Avila to think about thirds of the strike zone and let his fastball move, which it did.

“Really, I just wanted to get back to the basics,” he said. “I feel like when I’m going good, I can be effective just throwing different types of fastballs, four-seamers and two-seamers, adding and subtracting [velocity].”

“And that’s what I wanted to get back to and really work on today. It was good. I was around the zone the whole day. Threw a bunch of good sinkers.”

When Willis didn’t, it didn’t last long. He showed signs of being able to fix his mechanics on his own. As unusual as his delivery is, it’s something he realistically has to do.

“I had about three pitches that sailed on me, and I made adjustments,” Willis said. “To be able to make the adjustments and not be [at] pitch 12, pitch 13, and really throw a quality strike and get guys to hit it, I think that’s what I wanted to do today.”

It isn’t glamorous, but it has a chance to be effective if he’s consistent with it. It’s also basic enough for now that he can build off it without getting overwhelmed.

That high-strikeout, high-velocity pitcher from years ago, the one with the big leg kick and big curveball, might be a little much. Willis isn’t Justin Verlander or Rick Porcello, he says. He’s not going to try to hit the edge of the plate.

“They have the ability to do that,” he said. “I don’t have the ability.

But at the same time, that doesn’t mean I’m not a good pitcher.”

When anxiety disorder comes up, Willis is very careful discussing it, because of the connotation. It’s a wide-ranging term that encompasses a lot of conditions, not all of which fit him.

“I had people coming up to me, just randomly thinking I was going to [do something drastic], because they don’t really understand,” Willis said.

“And I don’t, either, so I really don’t get into it.”

Understanding it in relation to his season is complicated, too. The eight-walk performance against the Pirates was clearly the low point, but he also had games in which he looked like a confident pitcher.

“I threw well against Texas [for six-plus scoreless innings last May],” Willis said. “I threw well against Colorado [with a quality start May 24]. So it’s like, well, when does it come?”

“Not to be funny, but when is it a problem? And I was like, ‘Listen, I’m not getting into that.’ Just get something consistent [pitching wise], go from there, take a step back and get back to form. That’s it, man.”

That doesn’t mean he’s dismissing it, but he’s keeping it out of his mind. He wants to think about baseball, and the Tigers are glad to let him. They’re giving him the same shot as their other candidates for the open spot in the rotation.

He doesn’t want special treatment, and he doesn’t want to simply collect a check, despite $12 million guaranteed in the final year of his contract. He’s here to try to compete.

“Everybody knows the story,” Willis said. “To come back here and really be a man, I’m not hiding from anybody. I know I can get the job done. I think they see that. I think they see I worked hard this offseason to try to get back in form.

“I play because I love doing this. When I get done, I’ll coach. I just love being around here. I love the game, and the game has blessed me with so many things. But I feel I still have the ability to play.”

And if it doesn’t work out, so be it.

“I wouldn’t change a thing, the good or the bad,” he said. “I think baseball molds you through the bad, to be able to learn how to fail or succeed with class and pride. I’m glad that baseball helped me with that aspect, and I’ve been on both sides. It’s a good thing.”