10/11/2003 11:38 PM ET
The Matchup: Cubs vs. Willis
MIAMI -- It's not too much of a stretch to say if it weren't for Dontrelle Willis, the Marlins wouldn't be playing in the National League Championship Series. Putting aside the energy and the charisma and all he "intangibles," Willis fortified a starting rotation that took a huge blow when A.J. Burnett went under the knife.
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
But the dominant, All-Star pitcher of the first half gave way to a good, but beatable, young lefty after the All-Star break. And Willis' tumble hit a painful low on Saturday night, when he was chased in the third inning of Florida's 8-3 loss in Game 4 of the NLCS.
Willis is well past uncharted territory in terms of innings pitched. He has just about sailed off the edge of the earth. And as his workload has piled up, his effectiveness has tailed off. The Cubs, typically a hacking team at the plate, made Willis work extremely hard Saturday. He issued a career-high five walks, plus Aramis Ramirez's grand slam in taking the loss. It was the second consecutive time Chicago manhandled Willis.
"That wasn't our plan for the game," said Moises Alou, who walked and rapped two singles, "But since we saw that he couldn't throw strikes, we were patient and we tried to make him throw strikes and he couldn't. Then he tried to throw a strike to Aramis, and he took him deep. It wasn't our plan, but sometimes you have a plan, but you have to change it after you see a couple of things going on."
The entertaining, demonstrative southpaw threw his 200th inning of the year in the Division Series, after never going as many as 160 before this season. One way fatigue rears its head is when a player fades earlier during a game. And Willis has had trouble as he's gotten deeper into games in the second half. In his third time through a batting order, he has been hit hard.
Unfortunately for Willis and his teammates, he didn't last long enough to see the Cubs' lineup for a third time -- just as was the case the previous time he faced them. Willis looks like a pitcher rapidly running out of gas, and Chicago made him pay.
He walked three of the first four batters before Ramirez made it a 4-0 game. After two more walks and two singles in the third, Willis was finished and the Marlins were in deep trouble.
"He wasn't really around the plate," said Eric Karros, whose walk was the final straw for Florida manager Jack McKeon. "I think he had a few walks and then, obviously, that pitch to Ramirez -- he didn't get it where he wanted to. We faced him earlier in the year a couple times and we've seen him now three times. You've got to make him throw the ball over the plate. If you're patient up there he's gonna get himself into trouble, and he did tonight."
Florida's best hope in this game was to get a decent outing from Willis and hit Matt Clement hard. That didn't happen, and now the Marlins are in a deep 3-1 hole.
"That's his problem since the All-Star Game, bases on balls and getting behind in hitters, and having to come in," said McKeon. "That's his biggest problem, staying behind hitters. When he was 9-1 he was successful staying out in front and challenging hitters. After the All-Star Game he became a little different type pitcher. It hasn't been as successful as it was in the first half."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.