Willis pitches with sense of urgency
Left-hander doing what he can to leave camp with Tigers
LAKELAND, Fla. -- If Tuesday was Dontrelle Willis' last chance to impress Tigers officials, at least he can say he gave it all he had, whatever happens.
With a week and a half until the Tigers leave town, Willis had a quiet Joker Marchant Stadium for what might have been the biggest camp game of his career. And as he aimed for the corners and fired to the plate, he pitched with what seemed like a sense of urgency on Tuesday, with a need to show progress from the struggles that have set the course of his Spring Training.
After the outing, he talked like someone who realizes there's a decision looming -- for the Tigers, and potentially for him. But he also looked and sounded like someone who wants his potential last stand to be his way of pitching, rather than fighting himself and his mechanics.
"Even though I've taken my licks, I've stood up here like a gentleman, like a professional and I've taken everything in," Willis said. "So I have nothing to be ashamed of. I'm playing my tail off and working my tail off. And in the end, I'm OK with that. I'm content with that. Hopefully they start to see that I'm a guy that can get people out in the big leagues, have fun and be a help. I feel like I can, I really do."
Tigers officials have to decide that. If the question is whether Willis is one of the 12 best pitchers in camp, his struggles this spring work against him. If it's whether he can be one of the 12 best pitchers they have, then this was time for progress.
In terms of working the strike zone, Tuesday was a step forward.
"He had a lot better command, that's for sure," Detroit manager Jim Leyland said.
The hitters were different than the Braves he faced last Wednesday, but the strike zone wasn't. Tuesday's camp game saw Willis, big leg kick and all, aiming for specific parts of the strike zone. The lack of damage over his 4 2/3 scoreless innings made for solid numbers, albeit relative. Most important, he threw 36 of his 53 pitches for strikes.
Willis had long stretches when he controlled the zone. He worked fastballs in and out while spotting breaking balls on the corner to strike out the side in his opening inning, and he spotted repeated fastballs inside to get out from behind in the count against right-handed hitters.
Both hits he allowed were infield singles. More solidly struck pitches came in his final two innings, taking outfielders back before making catches.
What couldn't be measured in stats were relatively consistent mechanics.
"Once you feel comfortable and you feel confident in your mechanics, then you can start to think about pitching," Willis said. "Up until this point in the spring, I was just worried about just throwing the ball over the plate and executing that, instead of going out there and trying to execute pitches.
"I'm trying to get better at this, getting into the flow. The more confidence I get with my mechanics, the more I'll start to get out there and just compete."
Willis was pitching opposite Jeremy Bonderman, who also tossed scoreless ball over his two-plus innings but was unhappy with his velocity as he struggled through the early part of his outing. Bonderman left the bases loaded on two errors and a walk in the second when he reached his pitch count for the inning. However, he also tried to mix in breaking balls and changeups.
Willis said after the game that he believes in Bonderman's changeup. Bonderman, in turn, showed strong belief in Willis' outing.
"That's the old Dontrelle," Bonderman said. "That's the guy who came into Detroit in '04 and stuck it to us."
That was June 13, 2004, when Willis pitched a complete-game, eight-strikeout victory. Regaining that younger form isn't as relevant for Tigers officials as whether what Willis has now is enough to go on.
While Leyland said after the game that Bonderman will pitch again on Sunday against the Braves, he said he wasn't sure when Willis' next appearance would be. Leyland would like to have Willis pitch in a regular Spring Training game. Whether that means some slotting or decisions have to be made remains to be seen.
With Armando Galarraga back from the World Baseball Classic and pitching again Monday after his work in the camp game, plus Nate Robertson and Rick Porcello making starts for the fifth rotation spot, another Spring Training start seems unlikely to open. Short of the rotation, the next question would seemingly be whether the lefty is worth trying in the bullpen, a role he hasn't held for any long stretch.
"I know what time it is [in camp]," Willis said. "I just want to be on that plane. I just want to be on the team. Whatever case they feel like I can help this ballclub, I just want to be on the team. That's all I ask. And I know I can be of help to this ballclub, whether it be starting or getting a lefty out, whatever the case may be."
Asked whether he would accept another trip to the Minor Leagues, something that would require his permission, Willis said it would be a better question for Tigers officials. But he also didn't rule it out.
"I don't care what they want to do, but I want to be on this team, first and foremost," Willis said. "Do not get it twisted. I want to be on this team. Hopefully I've still got two weeks. If they feel like that right now, hopefully I've got two more weeks to improve that and get on the boat."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.