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.”

3 Comments

Standard practice when there’s no DH. Just shows how much fun it can be for manager and fans when the DH is out of the equation. The key was the willingness to let Willis PH if Torre doesn’t go to the lefty. I would have put Dontrelle up there in that spot even without the lefty in the bullpen scenario. The alternative was Avila, not a good one. I was disappointed when we had to go with Everett, but after he flailed at yet another slider in the dirt, it was obvious a squeeze was the only solution. Fortunately, it all worked out and Leyland comes away looking good. If Everett missed the bunt and Inge was nailed at the plate, it’s still the correct call although JL probably would have been roasted.
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I’ve wanted to use Dontrelle to PH ever since he made the roster out of ST. His lifetime numbers, spanning the equivalent of about a full season, show him hitting .255 against RH pitchers. Last time I checked, that makes Dontrelle our 6th best hitter, average-wise. Even with the DH in play, you can use him to force a pitching change if nothing else. Hopefully, you have a better RH hitter available than Everett.
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Too bad we have to resort to one gimmick (IL play) to see games without the other gimmick (DH). Here’s an idea: how about dropping all the gimmicks and going back to the way the game was played for 100 years.
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–Rich

First off, I agree that the DH needs to go. Complete gimmick that only extends aging hitters and pigeon holes pitchers.
That said, I think it is unrealistic applying those statistics to Dontrelle now. He was a very good hitter with FLA, part of the reason I was such a fan of his. However, any hitter that doesn’t swing a bat for 2 years will lose timing. Naturally he will take good swings, but those fly out in LA were nothing special and probably the norm for him in 2010.
For fun, I would venture the Tigers would have a pretty decent hitting pitching staff. Willis, of course. I think Porcello would hold his own. And verlander would be ok.

No objections from me getting rid of the DH – most of them always look incongruous as a sportman, but then again so do a few starting pitchers – I might ad neither involving Tig players.
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Willis was used as a PH a few times each season back in his Marlin days – wonder if not getting to swing the bat and resulting less involvement in the game has been to his detriment. He sure seems to struggle staying in the groove each outing.

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