After Chris Gomez walked and the second ball to Paul Bako whipped outside the plate and into Miguel Olivo's catcher's mitt, Olivo went over to the mound to give Willis counsel. Olivo held out his hands, spoke a few words, gave Willis a reassuring pat and then got back behind the plate to receive.
Strike. Strike. Ground ball, double play. Inning over. So what was the secret?
"That's what we talked about from the last start to this start, is me getting too quick," said Willis, who gave up six runs on nine hits over three innings in his last outing on Monday against the Twins. "I'm the type of guy you need to tell to downshift. Some guys, you need to tell them to kind of get up; I'm the type of guy who needs to slow down. [Olivo] did a good job of just saying to back off and execute this pitch."
Willis threw only six pitches in the fifth before exiting the game, in which he allowed three runs, five hits and one walk. He threw 72 pitches, 44 of them for strikes, and struck out two.
Willis was satisfied with the start, except for one nagging element -- the walk.
"I can deal with the hits, because we can defend them," Willis said. "But we can't defend walks. That's something in this offseason I thought about a lot and wanted to work on this season, was making guys put the ball in play."
Willis finished 12-12 with 160 strikeouts in 2006, but he issued 83 walks -- the most of any year in his career. In 2005, he was 22-10 with 170 strikeouts and 55 walks. Willis has allowed 17 hits but just two walks in 13 innings this spring.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez was happy with Willis' performance Saturday.
"He threw some ground balls, I wish we had gotten him some more run support," Gonzalez said. "He did a nice job today."
Gonzalez has not announced his starting rotation yet, but made clear that he has a lot of faith in Willis as Opening Day nears.
When asked by if, with two weeks to go in Spring Training, Willis was ready to be the leader of the pitching staff, Gonzalez replied, "It doesn't matter if it's two weeks or two years, he's ready."
Faran Fagen is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less