Willis' struggles persist in latest outing

Willis' struggles persist in latest outing

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Tigers manager Jim Leyland doesn't look at pitch counts as an absolute because of the situation in which those pitches are thrown. A 95-pitch outing with easy pitches, he'll point out, is different than 95 pitches with men on base and pressure situations much of the day.

Dontrelle Willis' final Spring Training tune-up Wednesday, Leyland said, lasted 95 tough pitches.

"That was a laboring 95 pitches for me," Leyland said.

For the third time in his last four outings, Willis struggled with command, and it showed in the numbers. His 95 pitches covered three-plus innings of work, during which he allowed six earned runs on eight hits, along with four walks, two of them with the bases loaded.

It was an outing to stretch out Willis' arm in the final days of Spring Training, and Willis feels like he has his issues pinpointed. Moreover, he's far from the first accomplished pitcher to struggle down the stretch of spring. Still, needless to say, it's not the way he would've liked to head north.

"I just hope that it clicks when the bell rings," Willis said. "That's the only thing you can be concerned about. If it's not, we'll continue to work on it. It is what it is."

Most of the struggles came in the opening inning. After a leadoff infield single from Nate McLouth, Willis alternated singles with strikeouts for the next four batters, driving in a run and putting two men on with two outs. Willis walked the next three batters, issuing 12 balls in a 14-pitch span to Jose Bautista, Ronny Paulino and Luis Rivas.

He then fell behind in the count to pitcher Zach Duke, who eventually hit a soft liner over the infield and into shallow center for a two-run single to cap a five-run inning.

Willis said that he might've had too much energy going into the outing, which he thinks would explain the first-inning struggles. He also said that he was trying to aim the ball, rather than throwing it towards the middle, and letting the movement of the pitch take it towards the corners or off the plate.

"It was tough when I was trying to be too fine," he said. "But when I just tried to throw down the middle of the plate and let the ball do what it do, good things happened. I got ground balls, more contact."

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Willis settled down, to some extent, from there, though they still weren't easy innings. He escaped a two-on, one-out jam with a ground-ball double play in the second inning after falling behind with a 3-0 count. After Bautista singled and Paulino was hit by a pitch to start the third, Duke drove in another run with a roller down the third-base line.

After an Edgar Renteria error put Jack Wilson on to lead off the fourth, Willis walked Jason Bay on four pitches. That ended the outing.

"He was having trouble throwing strikes, and then started to aim the ball a little bit," Leyland said.

The positive note Leyland sounded was that pitching coach Chuck Hernandez believed they could iron out matters in his side session this weekend. Still, Leyland didn't want to sound like he was ignoring Willis' command.

"I'm not going to say you're concerned one night when somebody doesn't throw strikes and then not to be concerned the next day when somebody doesn't throw strikes," Leyland said, referring to the Tigers releasing Tim Byrdak earlier in the day. "This guy's got a track record. That's one difference, so you get the benefit of the doubt. But at the same time, during the regular season, he wouldn't have thrown 95 pitches. I would've been out there."

Willis finished his spring with a 1-3 record and 8.64 ERA, pitching 16 2/3 innings over six games and not getting out of the fourth in any. He walked 15 batters and struck out 12. But he also leaves with some ideas of what he needs to do.

"I can feel it when the ball's flying," he said, "but I just want to try to zone in and get it to where guys are reacting, regardless if they're hits. When a guy is not even reacting to a ball because it's up and away or down and in, not even close, then you have to get it closer. I was able to do that in the third inning, getting slider off the plate."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.