The “D-Train” Is Back In Motown

By Jason Beck
Updated: March 31, 2010

SARASOTA, Fla. — Dontrelle Willis did not know his fate in the Tigers’ rotation when he took the mound Tuesday afternoon to face the Orioles. He finally found out when he left it.

In fact, he found out exactly when he left it.

“Skip told me on the mound today right before he took me out,” Willis said. “He said, ‘I’m proud of you. The way you threw the ball today, you’re going to get a lot of people out. You made the team. Now get off my field.'”

Tigers manager Jim Leyland made the move to pull Willis after back-to-back walks had loaded the bases in the fifth inning of an outing that looked statistically like the Willis of the past two years. If that’s the closest he gets to that old form — and it was by far the roughest outing he had this spring — they’ll be quite happy.

He pounded his fist in his glove as he walked off the mound, still flustered a bit over his outing. But he’ll be taking the field again on April 8 at Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium.

“I think I put together a great spring,” Willis said. “I’m not done though. I’m not content. I want to continue to work hard. I’m just thankful. I’m very thankful.”

The numbers on Wednesday were a bit deceiving. Though he walked four Orioles over his 4 1/3 innings, he was around the strike zone for much of his outing.

All of his walks came from the fourth inning on, and they came to the same two hitters — Garrett Atkins and Luke Scott. Three of the seven hits he allowed came in part as a result of defensive misplays.

For the first three innings, Willis looked much like his top form for much the spring, inducing swings and misses and getting ahead in counts. He struck out three of the first five batters he faced.

“Today I battled,” Willis said. “I was in between on what I wanted to do. Every time I second-guessed [catcher] Alex [Avlia], I got beat, which is a good thing because Alex, for being such a young guy, he’s calling the right pitches. But I had good life on the ball today. It just didn’t go my way.”

The guy who took the ball from him agreed.

“I thought he was very good today,” Leyland said. “I don’t think that was any kind of what we saw in the past. He was missing down. He was missing close. He was making them mishit the ball quite a bit. If he throws like that, he’ll get a lot of outs.”

It was his first outing all spring that really didn’t go his way. Lou Montanez’s bases-clearing triple in the fourth inning drove in more runs (three) than Willis had allowed all spring up to that point (two). His five runs allowed Tuesday still didn’t ruin his ERA, bumping it to a respectable 3.26.

That’s how well Willis’ spring had gone. That’s how Willis earned the Tigers’ trust to put him in the rotation after two years of command woes, injuries, rehab assignments at Triple-A Toledo and stints on the disabled list.

“We have a lot of confidence in him coming back,” team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. “I think he’s done a lot. He’s pitched well this spring. I don’t know what else [he could do]. You keep looking.

“I know, the other day, it kind of came to me. We talked about it, and then all of a sudden I look up, and he’s third in all of Major League Baseball in earned-run average [at 1.20 entering Tuesday]. And he’s thrown the ball well, too. He’s worked hard. He’s put himself in a position to win a spot. We feel comfortable he’ll do a good job for us.”

At one point, Dombrowski said, a scout from another organization told him that Willis looked more like his old form from his better days in Florida.

For Willis, there was very little that was sudden about his return to form. It began with an offseason mindset, and continued into the winter with a trip to a performance training center in Arizona.

Asked by a reporter what was the important step he took to get to this point, Willis paused.

“Humbling myself,” he said, “really taking a step back and doing some soul-searching and really asking myself, ‘Can I play this game? And do I still love it? And am I still having fun doing it?’ And I am.”

“Even after today, I have fun just learning what I can do in situations and what I can’t do. When you see the game, it slows it down. And when you’re having fun, it slows it down. You can recognize what you’re doing well and what you’re not doing well.

“Last year, I couldn’t answer that. I couldn’t tell you what I was doing wrong. It was just an avalanche of things.”

Around the same time, things were going quite well back at Tigertown for Jeremy Bonderman, who took the other rotation spot. He pitched seven scoreless innings for Class A Lakeland against Houston’s affiliate at Lancaster, who managed just three hits. Bonderman walked two and struck out six.

These were supposed to be the last outings for both of them before the rotation was decided. Turns out they had already pushed the decisions by the way they pitched.

“As for my command and how my ball’s coming out, I feel real confident I can get guys out,” Willis said. “I’m very excited for myself and where I am, to help this team.”