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Major League Baseball

Tigers See Positive Signs With Dontrelle Willis

The Associated Press
Published:   |   Updated: March 24, 2013 at 03:16 AM
DUNEDIN -

In his exhibition debut Friday, Dontrelle Willis retired three batters and gave up four runs.

Even with those stark numbers, his outing had enough bright spots to create an overall hue of ambivalence.

The first two runs Willis allowed, in the third inning, were unearned. He faced nine batters and walked one. He threw a first-pitch strike to five of the nine hitters.

Willis' new catcher, Gerald Laird, didn't have to lunge toward either batter's box to catch his pitches, as catchers sometimes had to last year.

"He was in pretty good sync the first inning," manager Jim Leyland said. "In the second inning, he wasn't in as good of sync. His rhythm overall and delivery were better overall in the first than in the second."

In his second inning, Willis allowed Toronto to load the bases with none out in the fourth on a single, a walk and a hit batter (on an 0-2 pitch).

He had then reached his first-game pitch quota of 43. Leyland lifted him for Chris Lambert, who inherited the ultimate jam: bases loaded, none out. Two runners scored, so per the scoring rules, the runs were charged to Willis.

Willis, who'd entered a 1-1 tie, took the loss as the host Blue Jays beat the Tigers, 6-4.

His pitching line: one inning (plus three batters faced in the fourth), three hits, four runs, two earned, one walk, no strikeouts, one hit batter.

"I felt great," Willis said. "I know my line doesn't show that, but I felt great. A couple of balls got away from me. The tempo got kind of out of whack at the end when I got to my pitch count. But I threw some great change-ups today.

"I had some first-game jitters. Hats off to the other guys. I felt confident today, and I felt strong."

Asked with what he was happiest, Willis said: "I'm happy about everything but the line. I'm happy that I was able to throw all my pitches for strikes and stay ahead (in the count) for the most part."

He was ahead in the count at some point to six of the nine hitters.

Willis relieved Armando Galarraga to start the third. The first batter, Aaron Hill, hit a routine grounder to short, and rookie shortstop Cale Iorg threw it away. Willis retired Alex Rios on a tapper, then gave up a full-count RBI double to Kevin Millar.

Adam Lind flied out. Rod Barajas dropped an opposite-field, two-out RBI single in front of rightfielder Timo Perez for the second unearned run. Scott Rolen flied out for the third out.

In the fourth, Willis allowed a leadoff single, then a four-pitch walk to No. 9 hitter John McDonald. Pitching coach Rick Knapp visited the mound. On 0-2, Willis hit Wayne Lydon. That was the end of his day.

But Willis liked that he got ahead, 0-2, on the hitter after the walk.

"I was able to come back and attack the strike zone," he said. "Before, it had been ball eight, ball nine, ball 10."

Willis grasps the crazy turn his career has taken. He was National League rookie of the year with a Florida team that won the 2003 World Series. He won 22 games in '05. But last year, in his first Detroit season, he went winless, lost the strike zone and descended to the low minors to look for it.

He's 27, young to roll a comeback bid out of the hangar.

Leyland reiterated he won't publicly analyze who's ahead and who's behind in the competition for the fifth starter. The contestants besides Willis, for now, are Nate Robertson, Zach Miner and Rick Porcello.

"It's his first outing," Leyland said as he discussed Willis' performance. "You don't want to put a lot into it."

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