Tigers come out flat in series finale
Willis allows six runs, walks eight in disappointing start
PITTSBURGH -- Tigers manager Jim Leyland has praised Dontrelle Willis' ability to compete ever since Spring Training. His struggles Sunday, however, did not allow the Tigers to be competitive.
"Honestly, today was just unacceptable," Willis said after his eight walks helped lead to all six Pirates runs in Sunday's 6-3 loss at PNC Park. "I can't put my team in that type of hole. Can't beat anybody pitching like that.
"It's very tough to pitch when you're in a jam every inning. I'm going to have to finally do something, or somebody else is going to have to go out there to help this ballclub win."
For a couple of innings, Willis flustered the Pirates by escaping those jams. He induced a ground-ball double play in the second to strand a runner on third base, then escaped a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the third with back-to-back infield popouts and a groundout from Pirates starter Ross Ohlendorf.
The problem for Willis was three-run rallies in the first and fourth, which were all the Pirates needed. Four runs reached base on walks. Four more walks gave him the highest total by a Tigers pitcher in eight years.
His competitiveness could only help him so much. It's not that Willis isn't trying. But on Sunday, it wasn't working, and the Tigers have to figure out whether there's hope that it ever consistently will.
"It's a tough issue for the guy, because he's been through a lot to get back," Leyland said. "Periodically, it's worked a little bit. Consistently, it has not, obviously."
Willis (1-4) kept his rotation spot for this start after Jeremy Bonderman struggled in his brief return earlier in the week, but Sunday's outing continued his battle with command. Time and again, Willis tried to hit the outside corner against right-handed hitters, only to miss wide.
The first four hitters in the Pirates order reached base safely in the first inning, including a bases-loaded, four-pitch walk to Craig Monroe that opened the scoring. Another bases-loaded walk to Eric Hinske and a Robinzon Diaz sacrifice fly brought in two more.
Willis had big pitches in his arsenal to get out of trouble the next couple innings, but the tone was set.
"I was just taking, to be honest with you," Hinske said. "He was having trouble finding the zone. I came up with the bases loaded, I wasn't going to swing at the first pitch my first at-bat. He ended up walking me on five pitches. Just kind of stick with that approach. He's effectively wild sometimes."
Eventually, Willis got hitters to swing. He put Freddy Sanchez in an 0-2 hole, fouling off a couple before his second-inning double play. Monroe swung his way into a 1-2 count before getting out of it for a leadoff walk in the third on Willis' way to loading the bases. Both Diaz and Jack Wilson popped out on the second pitch of their at-bats in the third.
But every time Willis worked out, he struggled his way back in. He issued leadoff walks in all four innings, including putting Ohlendorf on base in the second and Andrew McCutchen on four pitches in the fourth.
"It's amazing," Leyland said, "because one hitter, he's right there. And then two hitters, he's not close. It's hard to figure out, really, to be honest with you. I don't know if it's mechanical, but it's been a little bit of an issue obviously for a while."
Said Willis: "I have to do a better job of letting it happen against every single batter, not just when my back's against the wall."
McCutchen's walk and ensuing stolen base set up Willis' demise with a Delwyn Young single and another Hinske walk to load the bases.
Enter Zach Miner, who had warmed up each inning. Diaz greeted him with a two-run single.
Willis allowed six runs on six hits in 3 2/3 innings. Just 43 of his 83 pitches went for strikes. His eight walks were the most by a Tiger since Victor Santos walked eight Red Sox on June 7, 2001, at Fenway Park.
"Even when you get out of a jam, it's tough for the team to be out there all day," Willis said. "You can't defend a walk. So [I'll] try to find a way to get the ball in play, or skip's going to have to find somebody to do it."
Santos made just two more starts for the Tigers after that outing, both in doubleheaders, and finished out the year in the bullpen. The coming days will tell what the Tigers can do with Willis, whose spot in the rotation comes up again Saturday against Milwaukee at Comerica Park.
"We'll just have to go back to the drawing board and see what we can come up with," Leyland said.
Willis knows the precariousness of that. And he's sick of the drawbacks himself.
"I have to do a better job, and it starts today," Willis said.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.