Now pinch-hitting … Dontrelle Willis?
Yes, Jim Leyland said, he really was prepared to let Dontrelle Willis bat in the ninth inning. He was not simply a decoy, though he ended up being a pretty good one at that.
It was a piece of National League strategy that most American League teams never pull out in Interleague Play, especially in a nine-inning game. But Detroit’s bench was down one hitter with Austin Jackson out. Leyland used Ryan Raburn as a pinch-hitter for Rick Porcello in the seventh and lost another bench player when he put Don Kelly into the game as a defensive replacement in left field in the bottom of the eighth.
That left Alex Avila and Adam Everett on the Tigers bench when the pitchers spot came back around for the ninth. Once Brandon Inge drew a leadoff walk, Leyland got Dontrelle Willis ready to hit.
Willis was on deck when Danny Worth’s single put runners at the corners with one out, making it an RBI situation.
“I felt like I wasn’t going to waste a player unless I had to,” Leyland said.
Willis’ hitting prowess from his National League days is well-known, enough that some critics have wondered whether Willis could become a position player if his past pitching struggles proved unshakable. He’s a .232 career hitter with 10 doubles, five triples, eight home runs and 35 RBIs in 354 at-bats. Even better, he’s 5-for-11 in his career with a runner on third and less than two outs, and he’s 6-for-18 as a pinch-hitter.
The vast majority of those chances, however, came in the National League. He has barely hit over the last two years. However, he had two at-bats in his start against the Dodgers Friday, so he was fresh.
It was serious enough that manager Joe Torre went to the mound and replaced right-hander Ronald Belisario with left-hander George Sherrill. Leyland immediately countered by pulling back Willis and sending Adam Everett to the plate.
After swinging at the first pitch and taking two others to get ahead in the count, Everett laid down a well-placed squeeze bunt, scoring Inge. But Leyland said he wouldn’t have hesitated to let Willis hit had Torre kept Belisario in.
“If he hadn’t brought the lefty, I would’ve let Dontrelle hit,” Leyland said. “I felt comfortable with him swinging the bat. He hit what would’ve been two sacrifice flies probably [Friday]. Then if something happens to an infielder, I’ve still got Everett.”
Asked if that could happen again, Leyland said, “I think you could possibly see that in Interleague Play if we were short of players. I doubt that you’d see it in the American League.”
By contrast, he rarely ever feels comfortable with the squeeze bunt, never has. But it was something to try there.
“I hate the squeeze play,” Leyland said. “I’ve always hated the squeeze play. I hate it putting it on. It seems like it’s an hour before the pitch is delivered. But you try it with Adam Everett. We just took a shot. He got a decent pitch to bunt. He bunted it to the middle of the field, which is what you’re supposed to do, and we picked up an extra run on it. We were fortunate.”