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.”