LAKELAND, Fla. -- A little more than three weeks after being placed on the disabled list because of an anxiety disorder, Dontrelle Willis hopes he's on track to get back to the major leagues.
The Detroit Tigers left-hander began a minor league rehabilitation assignment with the Class A Lakeland Flying Tigers on Tuesday night, pitching seven effective innings in a 4-0 loss to the Clearwater Threshers.
Despite giving up four runs and eight hits, including a two-run homer, Willis accomplished what he set out to do: consistently get the ball over the plate. He threw 58 of his 75 pitches for strikes, including first-pitch strikes to 21 of 27 batters he faced.
"I got some good work in. They liked the pitch efficiency," said Willis, adding that his next start will be for Double-A Erie this weekend.
"If they continue to like what they see, I'll be back with the big club. I just told them I'm going to be honest with myself, and I'm going to be honest with them, and they're going to be honest with me. ... They were real impressed that I had strength going into the seventh. Not only just arm strength, but body strength."
Willis spent much of last season in the minors, rehabbing a right knee injury and trying to deal with control problems. He continued to have problems getting the ball over the plate during spring training, and the Tigers placed him on the DL on March 29.
The 27-year-old won 22 games for the Florida Marlins in 2005, the same number of victories he's earned over the past three seasons. He made eight appearances for Detroit in 2008, including seven starts, and went 0-2 with 35 walks and a 9.38 ERA in 24 innings.
"The idea was to let him throw the baseball until his mission was accomplished. I thought he did a great job," Lakeland manager Andy Barkett said. "The results weren't all good, but he was around the plate all night."
Willis retired nine in a row before giving up a leadoff single in the fourth. He gave up RBI singles to Phillies prospects Dominic Brown in the fourth and Derrick Mitchell in the fifth before giving up a two-run homer to Matt Rizzotti in the sixth.
The left-hander said he's still not certain what type of an anxiety disorder landed him on the DL.
"Do I look nervous out there?" he asked. "If you ask anybody who knows my personality on and off the field, I'm not really a guy that worries about playing baseball. That's fun out there."
He reiterated, however, that he doesn't have a problem with the Tigers' decision to leave him behind in Florida for extended spring training.
"Honestly, as long as it wasn't life-threatening, I was good. They care and want to get me right," Willis said.
"They felt that was the problem, I'm all for it. I want to be a better ballplayer. I know I can pitch for a long time. They said that's what wrong. I said: 'All right.' ... But I feel great. I could pitch all day. I appreciate that they're starting to believe in me and give me the freedom to do that."