Willis struggles as Tigers fall
Left-hander suffers through short outing against Tribe
DETROIT -- Dontrelle Willis called it a rhythm. It's partly mechanics for him, partly tempo, partly feel and partly consistency. For him, it's about as unique as the intricacies of his delivery.
However it's defined, however many aspects are involved, he clearly didn't have it on Monday night.
"Rhythm, that's the key," the Tigers' left-hander said after allowing eight runs over 1 1/3 innings in Detroit's 8-2 loss to the Indians at Comerica Park. "To be able to repeat your windup and repeat the motion, to be able to throw the ball with conviction down in the zone to get ground-ball outs, or get the big outs, or get the big strikes -- I just wasn't able to do that today."
Or as he put it more succinctly: "Today, I was off."
Even with the struggles Willis has had with command this year, Monday was an almost bizarre scene. Willis' steps walking off the field in the second inning to boos, having walked five of the 12 batters he faced, were out of rhythm with the soundtrack of a former 22-game winner and two-time All-Star who would bound off the mound after inning-ending strikeouts. The image of one pitch after another off the outside corner to right-handed hitters, resulting in just 27 strikes out of 64 pitches, isn't the repetition expected for someone who pitched through 664 innings over the previous three seasons.
It was part of a season that so far is not in tune. He walked just 55 batters over 236 1/3 innings in 2005 while striking out 170 batters. He has 21 walks over 11 1/3 innings so far this year.
He walked five batters over four innings in his previous start last Tuesday in Oakland, but stranded them all with big strikeouts and double-play ground balls. This time, he couldn't get them at the right time.
"I was around the plate a little better [at Oakland]," Willis said. "Today, I was missing in inconsistent zones."
Willis took the boos on his way off the field, then stayed in the dugout for the rest of the inning while he cheered on reliever Denny Bautista. He headed to the clubhouse afterwards and tried to figure out what went so awry. He saw the mechanics, saw the changes from one pitch to the next, and generally saw a delivery that was flying open too early.
"But I also throw across my body all the time," Willis said. "It's just about being consistent, being strong and driving to the plate."
He stuck around through the rain delay and the later innings, then answered every last question from reporters.
"Sometimes it's good to step back," Willis said. "Baseball's my craft, and I love this game very much. Sometimes you might put too much emphasis on things and take a step back and kind of analyze."
Manager Jim Leyland tried to keep his analysis simple.
"Dontrelle obviously had a tough time throwing strikes," Leyland said. "He let up to get the ball over the plate, and they hit a couple long balls."
Willis retired Franklin Gutierrez on a popout to lead off the game, then threw seven consecutive balls out of the strike zone, walking Ben Francisco and eventually Victor Martinez. After a visit to the mound from pitching coach Chuck Hernandez, Willis fell behind to Ryan Garko, who drove a 3-1 pitch deep to left for his sixth home run of the season.
"We didn't have [video of] his last start in Oakland," Garko said. "But you can just see when a guy's missing by a lot or by a little."
Willis put up back-to-back strikeouts to end the inning, but a five-pitch walk to Casey Blake led off the second before he fell behind on Kelly Shoppach. This time, Leyland visited the mound to talk to Willis without the infielders around.
"Everybody, they're encouraging him [at that point], and obviously he's a having a tough time," Leyland said. "I just thought maybe to have a little private conversation. And all I was saying was just, 'Look, just make sure that if you let up on a pitch, it's by design. Don't let up to get it over the plate. Throw the ball.'
"Sometimes you're fighting it and everybody's around you. It makes it a little more difficult. And that's the only reason I kind of waved the guys off."
Willis fell behind on a 2-0 count to Shoppach before he lofted a 2-1 pitch deep to left for his second home run of the year to give the Indians a 5-0 lead.
A one-out single from Gutierrez and another pair of back-to-back walks to Francisco and Martinez eventually brought out Leyland to take out his starter. With the bases loaded, reliever Bautista's first pitch hit Garko for an RBI before Jhonny Peralta singled in a run and a Shin-Soo Choo sacrifice fly plated another.
Willis finished with eight runs allowed on three hits in 1 1/3 innings. It was just the third time since at least 1956 that a pitcher allowed that many earned runs with so few hits, according to research on baseball-reference.com. The bright side for Willis is that the two other pitchers who did it have pretty good resumes. Randy Johnson walked 10 batters over 4 1/3 innings, resulting in eight earned runs at Baltimore on May 1, 1992. Ten years later, Kerry Wood allowed eight White Sox runs on two hits in four innings thanks to six walks.
Edgar Renteria and Placido Polanco drove in runs to put the Tigers on the scoreboard in the fourth, but Indians starter Cliff Lee got the outs he needed to last five innings and become the American League's first 10-game winner. He caught Marcus Thames looking at a called third strike to leave runners at second and third in that two-run fourth.
Back-to-back one-out walks from Rafael Perez gave Detroit one more threat in the sixth, but Perez endured through a nine-pitch at-bat against Renteria that ended with an inning-ending double play.
"We actually had a shot," Leyland said. "And it's easy to say, but I think if that game hadn't started the way it did, I think we would've won that game. But we didn't."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.