LAKELAND, Fla. -- Dontrelle Willis stood on the mound at Joker Marchant Stadium on Tuesday afternoon with a potential mess on his hands. He left with something very positive on which to build.

There stood Willis in the second inning with the bases loaded with Venezuelans, having just walked three of his last four hitters -- including back-to-back walks to force in a run. He had Melvin Mora stepping to the plate, Bobby Abreu on deck and the Tigers trio of Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen waiting after that.

Detroit pitching coach Rick Knapp jogged out to the mound. According to Willis, there was no special message.

"He just said to take a breather, take a step back," Willis said. "Sometimes you just need a time out to get going."

Willis paused and did what he had been trying to do all afternoon: attack the strike zone and let his defense work behind him. He got the play he needed from shortstop Adam Everett, even if he didn't expect it.

"When the ball was off the bat, I thought it was a hit," Willis admitted.

The ground ball was hit hard enough for him to think that. Everett, who had positioned himself well towards the middle, scooped it up and flipped the ball to Placido Polanco at second base for the inning-ending forceout.

If anyone needed a snapshot of the struggles Willis battled last season, Tuesday's second inning was it. What happened after that was an example of what the Tigers believe Willis can do when he's on.

Detroit catcher Gerald Laird told him so: The third inning is exactly what they're looking for.

"When he gets ahead of hitters and he shows guys he's throwing strikes, he's tough to hit," Laird said, "because he gets so much late movement and so much life on his ball and his slider's so good. He just has to go out there and just pitch, be himself. I wasn't here last year, but this guy's got tremendous stuff. He's just got to pitch like he did today in the third inning."

It was a study in contrasts, even if Willis was trying to do the same thing every inning.

"I was happy with all of [the innings]," Willis said. "I felt like I was around the zone. I just didn't get the breaks, the calls, like I wanted to. That comes with the territory. But facing a good team like that, I felt very positive. I felt like I made some good pitches and got out some big-time hitters."

The results were vastly different.

Willis made big plays to escape his first two innings. Before the bases-loaded groundout in the second, there was a pickoff play to end the first inning with runners stranded on the corners. Come the third inning, there were no big plays to make, only big pitches.

After Abreu was retired on a groundout to first, Willis made longtime teammate Cabrera look relatively helpless over a four-pitch stretch. He put back-to-back fastballs over the plate for an 0-2 count, elevated another out of the zone for a ball and then brought in a slider that sent Cabrera swinging in the dirt for strike three.

Ordonez flew out to left on the next pitch.

"Whatever he did that inning, that's it," Laird said. "He just got the sign, went through his delivery and delivered the pitch. It was crisp. He hit his spots. He got ahead and he put guys away. That's what he needs to do."

The fact that he did it at the end of his outing stood in marked contrast to his first Spring Training performance against the Blue Jays last Friday, when he came out of a 30-pitch opening inning out of sync once he went back on the mound for his second inning of work.

Willis missed some spots on key pitches in that outing. The difference between innings Tuesday seemed more a matter of location out of the zone. The pitches that he tried to execute in the second inning seemingly stayed off the outside corner of the plate to right-handed hitters before they came back over in the third inning.

"I think I saw some strides," Detroit manager Jim Leyland said.

Unlike last Friday, Willis said he was not working much on changing speeds. He focused on fastballs and sliders around the plate with a goal of contact for outs. He didn't lose many hitters with two strikes like he did last Friday, but he also fell behind on some hitters the first time through the Venezuelan order. Once Endy Chavez came back up in the second, he battled Willis for nine pitches before drawing a bases-loaded walk.

Willis finished with two runs allowed -- one earned -- on two hits with the three walks and the strikeout. It wasn't a dominant line, but given the offense he was facing, he'll take it. Given what his numbers could've been without two big plays before that third inning, so will the Tigers.

"[Armando] Galarraga [and I] talked about trying to get better and our mechanics getting better over the course of Spring Training, so we can hit the ground running," Willis said. "We've got a long time. This is a big Spring Training. I know a lot of us got caught up in wanting to do well right off the bat, but it's good that things happen here in game situations in this caliber of game.

"I felt like I accomplished a lot of things and I got some very talented hitters out today."