3:05 PM ET, February 28, 2011
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Dontrelle Willis relishes the time-honored, feel-good comeback story just as much as the next guy.He doesn't believe he's making one, though."I never left," he said, chuckling. "I was just terrible."After bursting onto the major league scene with a high-kick delivery, diving fastball and megawatt smile in 2003 for the Florida Marlins, Willis is trying to save a once-skyrocketing baseball career that has veered horribly off course in recent years.He's trying to win a bullpen job with the Cincinnati Reds, who signed the 29-year-old to a minor league contract in December and are giving him another chance -- maybe his final one.On Monday, Willis took another step toward getting back in the game. He threw 35 pitches in a one-inning relief debut as the Reds were roughed up 12-0 in their home exhibition opener by the Cleveland Indians, their spring training stadium mates.Willis allowed two hits and two unearned runs, walked one, had an errant pickoff throw -- one of Cincinnati's five errors -- and struck out two. The left-hander was all over the place, not unlike his personal excursion around the majors the past few seasons.There have been highs, lows and everything in between.He was the NL Rookie of the Year in '03, helping the Marlins win an improbable World Series title. Two years later, he posted a league-high 22 victories and finished second in Cy Young Award voting. He appeared on magazine covers and seemed destined for greatness that never happened.Willis had two knee injuries with Detroit in 2008. He was twice placed on the disabled list the following year with an anxiety disorder, and last season he pitched for four teams and three organizations, including the World Series champion San Francisco Giants.It's been a stunning drop for Willis, who despite his struggles, remains forever upbeat. His personal hour glass could be running out of sand, but hasn't dispensed all of its grains just yet. At some point, he's going to have to say goodbye to baseball.And, if that's soon, he's prepared."I love what I do," he said. "I'm appreciative and I'm still competitive. I still love baseball, but it doesn't consume me. If I can't do it anymore, then I go home and do something else. It's not the end of the world. It's just the end of your career."If it ended today, I feel proud of what I've done in the game and what I've given back on and off the field. There's nothing to be ashamed of. I just had a rough patch and everybody goes through that. Everybody hopes to play as long as Tom Glavine did, but the reality is sometimes you can't do it."Willis then looked around the Reds' spacious, luxurious clubhouse."I'm here," he said. "I've got a locker and I'm going to do the best I can to maintain it."Reds manager Dusty Baker believes Willis can help the defending NL Central champions. Although Baker's wife has known Willis since he was a kid, the left-hander isn't going to get any favoritism. He has to prove he belongs on Baker's roster."I don't have a role for him yet," Baker said. "He's got to make the team first."Willis has to adjust to being a reliever after starting games his entire career. He pitched in relief last season at Triple-A for the Giants, but that's not the same as the majors."It's a different beast up here," he said.Before Monday's game, the Reds observed a moment of silence for Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, who died in November. Anderson led the Big Red Machine, a squad featuring Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez, to back-to-back World Series titles in 1975 and 1976."It was a nice tribute to Sparky," Baker said. "I had to stop and watch it. I used to call him. He lived close to me. I'd call him when I first started managing and ask him different things. He helped me a lot."Travis Buck homered and went 3 for 3 for the Indians.Afterward, manager Manny Acta chose Fausto Carmona as his starter for the April 1 season opener against the Chicago White Sox.Carmona has bounced back from a horrific 2009, when he was demoted to the minors for seven weeks. He won 13 games last season, and the Indians are hoping for more from the 27-year-old, who won 19 in 2007 while helping the club get within one win of the World Series."He was able to keep his composure all year," Acta said. "He stayed in the moment, pitched well and didn't allow things to snowball. I think he's here to stay now."