March 8th, 2010

Seay set to throw Wednesday, Inge could play by weekend

Bobby Seay said Monday he’s now on track to throw from distance on Wednesday as he tries to stretch out his arm again following bursitis and tendinitis around his left shoulder. That much he knows.

As for what this means for his potential readiness for Opening Day, he didn’t want to speculate until he gets on a mound again. But his answers cast pretty good doubt.

“Tough to say,” Seay said. “That’s my goal. Again, I want to be 100 percent, throw all my pitches.”

He’s making progress, he said, but it’s clearly slow progress. It’s better than how he had been doing, but it might not be enough to get him to regular-season shape by the end of camp.

The Opening Day readiness for Brandon Inge, by contrast, is looking better and better right now, though he has yet to play in a game. That wasn’t expected to happen for another couple weeks until the original scenario, but there are increasing indications he’s going to beat that timetable by quite a bit. Inge won’t come out and say he wants to play this weekend, but signs are pointing in that direction.

Tigers ready for Strasburg

Casper Wells won’t soon forget his first encounter with baseball uberprospect Stephen Strasburg. It came last October in the Arizona Fall League.

“He threw a fastball 98 [mph] on the black, first pitch, actually shattered my bat,” Wells recalled Monday morning. “First pitch I ever saw from him. So I was like, ‘All right, maybe I’ll see a pitch next at-bat, just to gauge the timing a little bit.’ Someone throws an easy 98 in on your hands, you know, it gets there quickly. Maybe I’ll see the ball over the plate.”

Next time up, he somehow saw a hanging curveball and pummeled it for a grand slam, part of a three-homer drubbing the Peoria Javelinas handed Strasburg. He could be in for a rematch on Tuesday, depending on how the matchups turn out.

Strasburg’s first Spring Training start will come against the Tigers, turning an otherwise routine Tigers trip to Space Coast Stadium into a national event. Most likely, he’ll be facing a starting lineup comprised primarily of Tigers regulars, such as Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen, Scott Sizemore and Austin Jackson. Every pitch will be judged somehow towards his ability to pitch in the big leagues right now.

Wells came to a pretty positive judgment when he saw him last October, despite the damage he gave up.

“He was pretty poised out there on the mound,” Wells said. “That’s one thing I remember. After he gave up home runs, I want to see how he reacted, because our team hit him pretty well. We went out there like, ‘Let’s see what this guy’s all about,’ and our team hit him pretty well. He gave up I think back-to-back home runs, and I wanted to see how he reacted on the mound.

“He was still calm, like he never even gave up a home run, which is good. That shows a lot for his character, especially coming right out, starting your professional career and acting like that. That speaks highly of how you can handle yourself out there, just able to brush it off and his quotes that he made a couple of mistakes, which he did and we were able to capitalize. He’s a good pitcher, from what I saw. I’m sure he’ll be very successful in the big leagues very shortly.”

Wells wasn’t the only Tiger in that game. So was Scott Sizemore, but he wasn’t in there long. He was due up to face Strasburg in the opening inning, but he was injured on a double-play slide that broke his left ankle.

“I’m looking forward to facing him,” Sizemore said. “I can’t wait to see what everybody’s talking about.”

Dontrelle effective again, but also injured

Two outings into what could arguably be a make-or-break spring training, Dontrelle Willis looks far better than he has at any other point as a Tiger. Yet if it seems like there’s a bad break ahead for the D-Train, it’s possible he found it Monday in the form of a hyperextended left elbow suffered on a quick pickoff throw.

Willis said he’s fine and that he’ll be playing catch tomorrow. Still, his voice was just a little more downtrodden than one might expect from someone who just tossed his second consecutive outing of two scoreless innings. As of Monday afternoon, Leyland had yet to hear from the team medical staff as to whether the injury is bad at all.

“I’ll be out there tomorrow long-tossing and stuff,” Willis said, “so I’m fine. Just tweaked something. They’re just doing precautionary on me, but I’m OK.”

If it indeed isn’t bad, then Willis will start Saturday at home against the Yankees to try to continue what could well be the early stages of a career comeback.

Willis entered after the Braves had roughed up Max Scherzer and Fu-Te Ni for eight runs over the first two innings. He retired the side in order in the third inning in just seven pitches, six of them strikes. He headed back into the dugout to a seriously enthusiastic ovation.

“Just trying to focus, understand I’m one pitch away every time I throw the ball, and every pitch is for a purpose,” Willis said. “I was able to establish that and get some good ground balls. As long as they’re taking a right turn, that’s a good thing.”

Willis came back out and, like he did in both innings of his previous outing, gave up a leadoff walk to Jason Heyward, who hit about a 450-foot homer off Max Scherzer in his previous time up. Willis’ first-pitch ball to Freddie Freeman was his last of the day he hit the zone for his next three pitches before getting Freeman to swing and miss at a fastball with movement for the first out.

Up came Eric Hinske, and down he went on three pitches — a slider and two fastballs — taking a called third strike.

It was then that manager Jim Leyland and assistant athletic trainer Steve Carter came out to check on Willis, who was telling him he was fine before they could even get to the first-base line.

Willis finished off his outing with a slow groundout from Lakeland native Matt Diaz, who’s 10-for-24 off him in his regular-season career.

“I think Matt Diaz is like 99-for-100 off me,” Willis said.

What stands out about Willis, obviously, is his ability to stay around the strike zone, first and foremost. But he’s also much more consistent in his delivery, on Monday in particular. He said after his last outing last Thursday that he was more comfortable out of the stretch than the windup. They worked on that between outings and seemed to have not only a more comfortable release, but something he could repeat with the same mechanics each time.

“Me and Jonesy worked got in the bullpen and just tried to work on something that’s comfortable for me and to have the ability to repeat that over and over,” Willis said, referring to bullpen coach Jeff Jones. “Guys that are good are able to repeat their delivery over and over again, as many times as they need to, to be efficient. I thought it was something pretty good thus far.”

As incredible as it sounds — not to mention way too early to evaluate — but it’s plausible to say that at this point in spring training, Willis has looked as good or better than any of the handful of candidates for those final two spots in the rotation. That means next to nothing right now competitively, but it means volumes for how good Willis looks right now compared to last year or the year before.

Think about it: Willis was pitching in simulated games around this point last year. Instead, he’ll start against the Yankees in a split-squad game on Saturday at Joker Marchant Stadium.

“Sometimes you need to struggle, and God puts you through things to humble yourself, so to speak, and really make you understand that we’re a blessed few, man,” he said. “I’m proud to have a name on my jersey, and I’m proud to be part of a historic organization that’s been around since the beginning. When you walk through our locker room, you see all these big names and you just want to be a part of something.

“If I’m on, I know I can be a help for this team. I know I can be a help for any team.”