It's much too early to rush to judgment, but one of the saddest stories of the spring could be unfolding in the Tigers' camp. Things do not look good for left-hander Dontrelle Willis following his first appearance of spring training.
Willis, one of the most likeable people in baseball, is trying to come back from a season in which his struggles with his control and a knee injury limited him to 24 innings -- and he walked 38 in that short span.
The left-hander worked out hard between seasons and was sharp in the bullpen and in an early batting practice session. But his first exhibition appearance on Feb. 27 was not a thing of beauty.
Willis relieved to begin the third inning and wound up allowing two hits and two unearned runs while facing six batters. Willis faced three batters in the fourth, didn't retire any of them and was relieved after throwing 43 pitches to nine batters.
Willis gave up a leadoff single in the fourth, walked his only batter (on four pitches) and hit the next on an 0-and-2 pitch, his 43rd of the outing. Willis threw 25 strikes and threw at least four pitches to eight of the nine batters he faced.
"After the walk," Willis said, "I attacked the strike zone rather than throwing ball 8, 9 and 10."
It can be spun that Willis, in the middle of a three-year deal he signed after being obtained from Florida in a trade before 2008, allowed only three hits and just one walk.
But he struggled with his control again at a time in which he cannot afford to do so because he is one of three pitchers battling for one spot in the Tigers' rotation.
"With his rhythm and overall delivery, he was in a pretty good synch in the first inning," manager Jim Leyland said. "But then he was not so good."
Willis is an outgoing, happy and agreeable individual. This is a guy, after all, who could have legally refused to go to the minors last summer when the Tigers wanted him to go there and work out his kinks out of the spotlight.
He decided to go because it was in everybody's best interests.
But unless Willis begins turning in crisp, clean outings, he's going to get stuck with the Steve Blass Disease label. Blass went 19-8 for Pittsburgh in 1972 but came to spring training in 1973 and couldn't throw a strike. He pitched one game in 1974, and his career was over.
There will be a lot of pressure on Willis the next time he pitches. Knowing it won't make it any easier.
--LHP Dontrelle Willis walked only one batter Feb. 27 in his first exhibition appearance but was shaky in his 43-pitch outing. Willis allowed three hits but faced nine batters and failed to retire any of the three he faced in his second inning. He gave up a single, a four-pitch walk and hit a batter on an 0-and-2 pitch in his 25-strike appearance. He gave up two earned runs in the third, and two of the batters he left on in the fourth came around to score. Willis, who walked 38 batters in the 24 innings he worked for Detroit last season, is battling LHP Nate Robertson and RHP Zach Miner for one open spot in the Detroit rotation. "It was a tough day," Willis said. "But I like where I was in the strike zone, and I felt confident with all my pitches. I was happy with everything but the (pitching) line. I felt strong to the end."
--RHP Edwin Jackson was sharp Feb. 26 in his first spring game. Acquired in an offseason deal with Tampa Bay, Jackson pitched two hitless innings and struck out three batters against Washington. He walked one. "He's got an outstanding arm," manager Jim Leyland said. "He's got electric stuff." "Outstanding," C Matt Treanor said. "Great velocity, and his sinker was moving a ton." Jackson will fill one rotation spot for Detroit.
--LHP Nate Robertson gave up a run Feb. 26 in his first exhibition game but didn't let things get out of hand, as happened so often last season. Robertson, one of three pitchers contending for one rotation spot, gave up a run in the third inning but worked a 1-2-3 fourth. "His sinker was really sharp, above average," C Matt Treanor said. "He gave up a run but didn't collapse. He kept his mental edge." Robertson gave up a soft infield single to shortstop to open the third, followed by an RBI double. He issued a one-out walk but got a groundout, and then CF Ryan Raburn made a nice play on a popup in center to end the inning.
--RHP Jeremy Bonderman was scratched from his scheduled Feb. 28 exhibition game start "because of normal stiffness," a move manager Jim Leyland said should not raise any red flags. Leyland said Bonderman would work two 15-pitch innings at the Tigers' minor league complex instead. Bonderman, recovering from shoulder surgery, was miffed about not starting, "But that's Bondo," Leyland said. "He's not too happy about it, but we have to do what's best for the ballclub and him. He is pitching but will pitch in a simulated game instead. We want to be able to control it with a pitch limit. He'll throw 15 pitches, sit down, then come back out and throw 15 more pitches. You can't do that in a regular game. Like I said before, if you see Bonderman and Joel Zumaya monitored a little bit more, don't be surprised. We're taking all precautionary measures. It's common sense. For obvious reasons, you don't want to take any chances. There are no red flags here, though. You just want to make sure he doesn't try to overexert."
--DH Gary Sheffield missed Detroit's first two exhibition games because of swelling in his left elbow after being hit by a pitch by RHP Chris Lambert during batting practice. Sheffield took batting practice and said he could have played in either of the first two exhibitions but manager Jim Leyland held him out as a precaution. "I'm fine," Sheffield said. "It's just stiff. I could play if I had to, but it's better to just let the swelling go down."
--CF Curtis Granderson made the final roster of Team USA for the World Baseball Classic. Normally a center fielder, Granderson volunteered to play one of the corner spots so Cleveland's Grady Sizemore could play center. But now it appears Granderson will get to play center field after all because Sizemore was forced to pull out after suffering a groin injury in training camp with Cleveland.
--LHP Fu-Te Ni worked a scoreless inning Feb. 25 in Detroit's exhibition opener, his only appearance for the Tigers before joining the Taiwan entry in the World Baseball Classic. Ni was signed by Detroit and given a non-roster invitation to spring training. He was considered a longshot to make the opening roster as he makes the tough twin adjustments to both the United States culture and to baseball in America.
--RHP Rick Porcello allowed a run in his first appearance in a Tigers uniform. Porcello, Detroit's top choice in the 2007 draft, is only two months past being a teenager. He worked the fifth inning Feb. 26 and allowed a leadoff single plus an RBI single before striking out the next two batters. "I was rushing myself the first couple of batters," Porcello said. "It was natural, my first time back -- the adrenalin was flowing." "I'm pleased he didn't get more hyper," C Matt Treanor said. "As far as his stuff, it's definitely as advertised. His sinker is outstanding."
BY THE NUMBERS: 7 -- Players from the Tigers' organization who will be participating in the World Baseball Classic. CF Curtis Granderson was selected for the United States team. 1B Miguel Cabrera, LF Carlos Guillen, RHP Armando Galarraga and RF Magglio Ordonez were named to Team Venezuela. LHP Fu-Te Ni, a non-roster left-hander, will play for Taiwan, and minor league C Andrew Graham will play for Australia.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's common sense. For obvious reasons, you don't want to take any chances. He's probably going to be a little bit behind, so we're just making sure he's not trying to overexert. He wasn't too happy about it. We have to do what's best for him and best for the ballclub. This guy's a big, big part of our ballclub." -- Manager Jim Leyland on why he scrubbed recuperating RHP Jeremy Bonderman from his scheduled Feb. 28 start. When Bonderman reported some shoulder stiffness, Leyland said he would work him a pair of 15-pitch simulated innings on the side rather than have him work two innings of an exhibition game. Bonderman had a blood clot and a rib removed in two separate surgeries last summer.