Willis' fast start unravels as Tigers fall
Two of lefty's four runs score on hit batter, wild pitch
LOS ANGELES -- The one-liner about Dodgers fans is that they don't arrive to the game until about the third inning, thanks in no small part to traffic. Those who didn't arrive until later Friday night had little idea how well Dontrelle Willis looked early on, or how quickly his outing truly fell apart.
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For about four innings of Detroit's 4-1 loss, Willis dueled Chad Billingsley in the Pacific twilight, holding down one of baseball's hottest teams and showing no ill effects from his control woes from his last start. Once the sun went down and Matt Kemp's two-out single landed in left field, Willis' chances at a victory faded into the cool California night.
It was an outing that left manager Jim Leyland struggling to make one determination on the two sides of Willis' performance.
"That was one of those starts that it's hard to sum it up," Leyland said. "It certainly wasn't a great start, but it certainly wasn't a bad start."
With some offensive support, Leyland said, it could have gotten them a victory. But without question, Billingsley had a very good start.
"It was a well-played game," Willis said. "I got outpitched by Billingsley today. He did a great job against us."
For nearly four full innings, Billingsley was being outpitched on the scoreboard, with Austin Jackson's aggressive baserunning for a leadoff double setting up the game's first run in the opening inning. Billingsley retired eight straight Tigers from there, but Willis kept pace.
Not only did Willis retire 11 of the first 12 Dodgers, but Reed Johnson's second-inning single was the one ball he allowed out of the infield in that span. He used two slick fielding plays from rookie Danny Worth at second base to overcome a Brandon Inge error in the bottom of the first inning and generally moved ahead of hitters from there.
He needed just three pitches to retire Ronnie Belliard and Manny Ramirez for the first two outs of the fourth inning and was a strike away from getting the third before Kemp worked out of a 1-2 count to run the count full and line a single to left.
For just the third time all night, Willis had to pitch from the stretch. He had to pitch that way for most of what was left of his outing. A wild pitch moved Kemp to second en route to a five-pitch walk to Casey Blake. He lost fastballs high to fall behind on a 3-0 count to Johnson, worked it back full, then watched Johnson foul off three quality pitches before ball four loaded the bases.
"I went to a cutter and it backed up on me," Willis said. "It was a great at-bat, though, regardless of whether I get him out. He did exactly what he wanted to do, get the pitch count up, so hat's off to him. It was a good battle."
Willis (1-2) didn't believe the stretch was any cause behind his collapse.
"Just tried to get too fine instead of executing the pitch," Willis said.
He tried to go inside on Nick Green on his 1-1 slider, but went too far in, hitting Green to knock in a run. A lineout to second prevented far worse damage, but a one-out walk to Jamey Carroll and a Belliard double resumed trouble in the fifth.
"I don't know whether he got a little quick or what," Leyland said. "He actually had some decent movement on the ball, and they stayed on a couple balls pretty good and hit it, but he made them mishit a few balls."
The only run-scoring hit he surrendered didn't leave the infield, a hard-hit grounder from Ramirez that ricocheted off Inge at third. His second wild pitch of the night, though, scored Carroll ahead of that.
Back-to-back singles with one out in the sixth chased Willis, who gave up four runs on six hits with three walks and two strikeouts. It wasn't the seven-walk debacle that troubled him last Friday against the Red Sox, but it wasn't his form from earlier this season, either. Instead of settling into a rhythm after a shaky first inning, he had the opposite.
"I'm not OK with that," Willis said. "You have to finish out games. You have to finish out innings. And I didn't do that. But it's one of those things where you have to continue to build and get better. From the last outing I had, I felt like I did that. But still, we've got to win ballgames, especially when ballgames are close like this.
"We're going to play a lot of games like this, and I have to find a way to keep us in it, do a better job of keeping us in it so we can strike."
Billingsley (5-2) fit that strategy perfectly. He scattered four hits over seven innings, and Jackson had two of them. Inge's double to left that Ramirez misplayed was another.
"He's got good rhythm," Magglio Ordonez said. "He was working quick. We were working into his rhythm. He didn't give us any breaks."
Leyland didn't figure he would. His nephews faced Billingsley as a high schooler in Defiance, Ohio, and Leyland said they didn't have much fun trying to hit him. This one was similar.
"Billingsley was good," Leyland said. "He threw the ball extremely well. We had a couple innings where he had quick outs. We just let him have a couple innings there where he didn't have to labor at all. I thought that took its toll on us. We didn't really muster much offense at all. That pretty much summed it up."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.