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Friday, February 27, 2009
Willis struggles, but Tigers remain upbeat

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- I don't know anybody in baseball who doesn't root for Dontrelle Willis.

I mean that, too. Who doesn't understand what Willis once meant for this sport? Every day he took the mound was a sunny day for baseball. He was that much fun. And he was that good.

So what happened Friday at Knology Park in Dunedin, as Willis made his spring debut, was tough to watch for a lot of people.

Here was the line: 1-plus IP, 3 hits, 4 runs, 2 earned, 1 walk, 0 strikeouts, 1 hit batter, 43 pitches, 25 strikes.

And here was his second inning out there: Hit. Walk. Hit batter. Head for the exit ramps.

Oh, it was far from a disaster -- not when you measure it against a 2008 season in which this guy walked 35 hitters in 24 big league innings, and didn't have a single outing before Sept. 27 in which he had fewer walks than innings pitched.

But was it a step forward? A step toward getting Willis back to being the ace he was when he was the NL Rookie of the Year and runner-up for the Cy Young in 2003?

Well, his pitching coach thought so. And Willis, himself, painted the happiest face possible on his own canvas.

"We were ahead of the majority of the guys today, and that's a good thing," he said, "instead of being ball 10, ball 11, like I was last year."

But a scout who has seen a lot of Willis through the years had a tough time trying to convince himself this was a good day.

"He was just so easy to hit," the scout said. "He was so tentative out there."

Once upon a time, Willis used to throw 94s and 95s up there on the radar gun. In this game, he topped out at 88 mph, his fastball ranged from 85 to 88, and he appeared much more confident about throwing his breaking stuff for strikes than his once-electric fastball.

The good news, in a way, was that he'd clearly smoothed out his delivery so he was able to throw more strikes. But that was also the bad news, because he also seemed to have lost the herky-jerky deception that once made him so special.

"I always thought he was a freak, an exception to the rule," the scout said. "He gave every hitter a different look, and that's what made him great. The hitters couldn't find the ball. … I didn't see that today."

But what did his team see? That was the question. His manager, the great Jim Leyland, couldn't have measured his words more carefully if you were charging him 100 bucks a word.

"He had pretty good sync his first inning," the manager said in response to his first question on Willis. "Not as good the second."

The manager's answer to the second question of the day, about whether Willis had lost his tempo, was almost identical, word for word, to the first.

Leyland would repeat that review, again almost word for word, five questions later. And when one of the Detroit writers tried to press for elaboration, Leyland replied: "I always tell you what I see. So I'm just telling you what I saw. Pretty good sync the first inning out. And not quite as good the second inning."

Part of his reluctance to go further stems from a decision the manager admitted he'd made in advance -- not to do any big-picture reports this spring on Willis' progress, or lack thereof. Asked if he plans to describe what he sees, start by start, on any given day, Leyland replied: "Correct. Not overall."

And you can't blame him. Willis' implosion was a source of major frustration -- and major tension -- in Tiger Town last season. So no one wants to revisit that scene. Not now. Not yet.

Willis himself promised this: "I'm a realist. I'm an honest guy about what type of baseball player I am. And I thought today was a good day, for where I've come from."

But his new pitching coach, Rick Knapp, might have been the most realistic guy in the ballpark.

"I wasn't here," he said. "But that had to be better than what you saw last year."

And by that standard, he's right. This wasn't a step backward, at least. But Willis faced nine hitters -- and never once retired two of them in a row. And in 45 pitches, there wasn't a single bad swing.

It was only the first outing of spring training. So Leyland said he wasn't going to "put a lot into it." Willis will be back out there next week. And they will all go from there.

Nobody I know wants this to go badly. Nobody I know wants to see an encore of last year. And, especially, nobody wants to feel better about where this is leading than Dontrelle himself.

He's only 27. And he's still a great athlete. So there's no reason he shouldn't be salvageable. But we'll see soon enough. Won't we?

"His state of mind was really good coming in," Knapp said. "Now I have to make sure that it's good coming out."