Dontrelle, Bonderman turn in solid efforts
Both pitchers battling for spots in Tigers' rotation
VIERA, Fla. -- Neither Jeremy Bonderman nor Dontrelle Willis know the end result of their comebacks quite yet, though Bonderman has reason for encouragement. Their outings Thursday at least reinforced the belief that they're both back as Major League pitchers.
Neither Bonderman nor Willis got through the fifth inning with their pitch counts, but neither did they really struggle. Both showed progress as the Tigers try to move toward decisions.
For Bonderman, the progress was additional bite on his slider and some added confidence in his splitter. For Willis, the biggest boost might have been the backing of his manager.
"I don't think anything he's been through before is an issue anymore," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said after the game.
Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski told FSN Detroit during the afternoon game, shortly after Willis' outing, that Bonderman was in a position to win the fourth spot in the rotation. However, Dombrowski cautioned before Bonderman's start, the right-hander still has to pitch well to win it.
It was arguably encouraging news for Bonderman, but it wasn't a decision. Nor was it necessarily an endorsement over Willis or fellow starting candidate Nate Robertson.
"I can honestly tell you right now we don't know what the rotation will be," Leyland said after the game. "You can make a case [for all of them]. They've all been OK. They know what they need to do."
They'll all get one more start to do that, Leyland indicated, before they make a decision. Robertson is slated to face the Yankees on Saturday. Bonderman and Willis will pitch again next week.
Bonderman largely attacked the strike zone with a mix of pitches, with the exception of a walk to Adam Dunn leading off the fourth. Forty-nine of Bonderman's 68 pitches went for strikes with an array of fastballs, sliders and splitters. The splitters came at Leyland's request.
"Split was terrible," Bonderman said. "I threw a lot of them. It's one of the things I have to keep working on. I felt good. I thought I threw the ball well."
Bonderman retired six of his first seven hitters through two innings before enduring a 25-pitch third that plated an unearned run on two singles and an error. Bonderman escaped with a pair of groundouts before a walk, single and an infield error loaded the bases on him with nobody out in the fourth.
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Bonderman needed just eight pitches to retire the side from there with a strikeout and two groundouts, limiting the damage to a run. A leadoff bunt single and two stolen bases by Nyjer Morgan helped Bonderman hit his pitch count with one out in the fifth.
None of the five hits off Bonderman were hit particularly hard. His only walk was to Dunn, whom he started off with back-to-back splitters outside the strike zone. He struck out two.
"He's getting better," Leyland said. "I thought he had some sink. I thought he threw some good sliders. He continues to throw the split -- not all good ones, but he's throwing them. He looks like he's getting stronger. I think he's in as good of shape as he's ever been."
Willis' opening inning was the first in a while where he truly looked out of sync, as he struggled to find his rhythm early. He walked Toronto's first two batters. After striking out Adam Lind, he had a pitch sail to the backstop while Mike McCoy and John McDonald executed a double steal.
Yet, there was no mound visit, no pep talk from Leyland or pitching coach Rick Knapp to try to calm him down. They had to see whether he could work out of trouble on his own, but they also believed he could.
"I don't worry about him bouncing back with his command," Leyland said. "His demeanor and everything, he's been different this spring. You don't know if you're right, but I didn't worry he was going to blow up or anything. I thought he'd come back and throw the ball over the plate."
Willis did. He recovered to escape with a lone run allowed in his 22-pitch, 11-strike opening inning. He retired Jeremy Reed to lead off the second and put Edwin Encarnacion in a 1-2 count before he threw another one to the backstop untouched. Willis eventually lost Encarnacion to a walk before getting back-to-back ground-ball outs.
Willis said it was an issue of working too slowly.
"Sometimes it's good to get in trouble early and pick up your tempo," he said after his outing.
Willis changed speeds and varied pitches much more than in some previous starts, and he got some good results when he did. Lind's strikeout came when Willis followed a 91-mph fastball with an 81-mph offspeed pitch. He also had enough movement to get several swings and misses, including three from Travis Snider to end his fourth and final inning, capped by a two-seamer that darted for the dirt.
Willis topped out at 94 mph on one of his 70 pitches for the outing, with several others at 92. For a game in which he didn't have his best stuff, his damage control was respectable. Whether it means anything for his evaluation will be decided in the coming days.
"I thought his overall stuff was better," Leyland said, "but his command wasn't quite as good as it's been."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.