Willis' start sets up Cabrera's late homer
Lefty effective for six innings as Tigers claim series in KC
KANSAS CITY -- Dontrelle Willis wasn't a winning pitcher Thursday, but he was an effective one.
That's what the Tigers needed him to be if they were going to pull out another comeback victory, this one a 7-3 victory over the Royals on Thursday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium. It wasn't so certain at the beginning, but it was clear at the end.
Take away the history, the diagnoses, the leg kick, the personality, everything, and Willis was another Tigers starter keeping his team in the game for his offense to come back late on Miguel Cabrera's three-run homer. And Detroit was enthused about it.
"I thought Dontrelle made a lot of strides," manager Jim Leyland said. "I was tickled. He escaped some trouble, but he battled through it. ... I was very pleased with him. I think he's just got to build on this and keep moving forward."
Willis earned a rotation spot in Spring Training by convincing team officials through his performance that his past struggles with command were behind him. It wasn't simply about hitting the strike zone, but the consistency with which he did it, and the velocity with which he could do it. He showed confidence the Tigers hadn't seen from him over the past two years.
If that confidence was going to be tested, Willis faced it with his first real inning of the season. The Tigers didn't waver, and neither did Willis.
"You guys make more of it than I do," Willis said.
He wasn't thinking about his past struggles. He addressed the media like somebody who was thinking about the job in front of him.
"They had me on the ropes," Willis said, "but because of my team, I was able to battle, make some good pitches and get us back in the dugout."
Willis' first batter of 2010 was David DeJesus, who drew a four-pitch walk. His second, Scott Podsednik, hit a line-drive single on a full count after getting out of an 0-2 hole. After a double-play grounder, another four-pitch walk followed to Billy Butler.
Willis was throwing the ball in the mid- to upper-80s while trying to find the strike zone, but he had enough movement that his pitches weren't getting pounded. The natural reaction would've been to wonder if regular-season action was getting to Willis.
It was not a reaction Leyland shared. He didn't have anyone in the bullpen so much as stretching. Leyland has said repeatedly he believes Willis' control issues are behind him, and he demonstrated it Thursday.
"I don't think he's missing like he did before," Leyland said. "I think it's a different type of walk when he does walk a guy. I know a walk's a walk, but I think it's a different type of walk."
Willis' previous walks were wilder. When he misses now, Leyland explains, he's usually around the strike zone but missing low. It was a concern for Leyland because Willis got a little erratic in his delivery, but it wasn't a trend.
"Early on, I have to force contact," Willis said. "I think everybody's going to have the same approach on me. I think they're going to kind of wait me out and see if I'm throwing the ball over the plate. Those are the moments you can get ahead early and really establish yourself. Toward the middle of the game, I was able to do that."
Those first-inning walks were the last Willis issued. He reached just three other three-ball counts, and none of them resulted in a baserunner. He was ahead in the count on just about every other hit he gave up, including DeJesus' single on an 0-2 pitch to lead off the third and start Kansas City's one other real threat.
Butler's RBI single put another run on the board, again after an 0-2 count, but Willis worked back ahead to get a ground ball from Jose Guillen that third baseman Don Kelly turned into an inning-ending double play.
Not only did Willis' ball-strike ratio improve with each inning, but so did his velocity, topping around at 92-93 mph. He induced three double-play ground balls.
"He wasn't quite as wild as we expected him to be, or as he's been in some of his past [outings]," Royals manager Trey Hillman said. "He threw enough strikes for us to have to be ready."
On most days, that would put him in line for a victory. However, a sixth-inning solo homer from Magglio Ordonez was the lone run Detroit produced against Kansas City starter Brian Bannister. The Tigers erased a deficit against the Royals' bullpen for the third time in as many games this series.
After Royals lefty Dusty Hughes erased a seventh-inning threat by striking out Austin Jackson with two runners on, his walk to Johnny Damon leading off the next inning set up the middle of Detroit's order. Ordonez greeted Luis Mendoza (0-1) with a sharp grounder to deep short for an infield single before Cabrera lofted an 0-2 pitch deep to right field for his second homer in less than 24 hours.
Cabrera had four hits; Ordonez added three.
Eddie Bonine (1-0) got the win with his scoreless seventh inning, and Jose Valverde got his first save. But Willis got a lot of the congratulations.
"I'm happy. We won," Willis said.
So were a lot of other Tigers, mainly for him.
"We feel very good how he worked," Cabrera said. "That's what we want to see all season. Hopefully he stays healthy, and our whole pitching staff stays healthy. If our pitching staff stays together the whole season, I think we're going to have a lot of success."
Willis is part of that pitching staff. That's all he wants.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.