Comeback masks Willis' shaky start

Comeback masks Willis' shaky start

DETROIT -- Dontrelle Willis loved the Tigers' comeback Tuesday as much as anybody. He just wishes he could've taken the trailing part out of it.

Two outings into Willis' 2010 season in the Tigers' rotation, he hasn't shown signs of the meltdowns that marked the past two years. There haven't been ball-four, ball-eight, ball-12 moments that Willis himself referred to among the problems. His problem Tuesday was ball two -- 2-0 counts, or the 2-1 count on which Jose Guillen homered.

That in itself is progress for Willis, compared with last year. But as manager Jim Leyland pointed out, the progress needs to continue.

"I don't want to sit here and, because we won a game, get all excited that I think Dontrelle's home free," Leyland said. "I'm not saying that at all. He's got to get better, and we're going to put him out there. At some point, he's got to get better."

The Royals managed two runs in six innings against Willis last Thursday at Kansas City, but they seemingly had a better approach against him this time around and were more aggressive when they thought they had a chance to be. Willis didn't give up any extra-base hits last week, but surrendered three big ones among the nine hits he allowed in five innings.

Willis can live with the two solo home runs he surrendered, from David DeJesus in the third inning to Guillen in the fifth. It was a third-inning pitch to Alberto Callaspo for a two-run single that he'd like to have back. He had just struck out Rick Ankiel for the second out, eliminating a sacrifice-fly opportunity, before Callaspo got a fastball and grounded it through the left side.

Willis took the blame for it, essentially opting for a different pitch than called.

"Gerald [Laird] had the right call," Willis said, "and I just got mixed up. That happens, and that's the one I want back."

Both of his outings so far have seen him seemingly searching for command in the opening inning. He had a pair of first-inning walks once again, which combined with a walk to load the baes with one out.

Willis escaped that inning scoreless by striking out Ankiel and getting a flyout from Callaspo, and he fired back-to-back fastballs that hit 94 and 95 mph on the stadium radar gun in the process. But it cost him in pitch count. He threw 32 pitches in that first inning, then 29 in the third to get to 71. He finished with 104 pitches over five innings, the third straight Tiger to leave without recording an out in the sixth.

"I wouldn't call him really erratically wild wild," Leyland said, "but there were too many two-ball counts where he got behind hitters. And when you get behind hitters up here 2-0, they're going to hurt you, and that's happened."

The encouraging part for Willis in the pitch count is that he felt strong as he got to the 100-pitch mark, and that he avoided the big innings while he did it.

"Even in Florida, I was a slow starter," he said. "Once I get in trouble, I try to zone in. I want to be 1-2-3 to everybody, trust me. Sometimes it works out that way. I feel confident even when my back's against the wall that I'm one pitch away."

Leyland called Willis' peformance through two starts "OK." At no point, Leyland has emphasized, has he felt like the problems of last year have resurfaced. But it's still a work in progress.

"Sometimes you walk on eggs, because it's been a sensitive situation ... but I do think it's a possibility that he could be all right," Leyland said. "He's got plenty of movement. If he starts pitching 0-1, 1-1, 1-2 instead of 2-0, he gives himself a chance. His stuff at times is good, and other times it's just OK. It kind of fluctuates. But he does change speeds by design. I mean, he knows what he's doing. It's just a matter of commanding."

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