Inside Pitch: D-Train Making Noise

Midway through March, and everyone expecting to see Dontrelle Willis implode is still waiting. Could the D-Train have finally turned the corner, and could he be forcing manager Jim Leyland's hand when it comes to the final rotation spots?

Dontrelle Willis is sticking his foot into a door opened by the other competitors for two open spots in the rotation.

The Tigers have gotten just one victory out of Willis since signing him to a three-year deal after acquiring him from Florida three winters back -- before he'd thrown even one pitch for them.

Willis has been stashed on the disabled list for the bulk of two seasons because of an anxiety disorder he denies he feels. An inability to throw strikes on a consistent basis has been the manifestation of his problem.

He's looked sharp at times the last two springs, only to deteriorate once the games began to count. Sure enough, in his first four innings this spring he did not allow a run, allowing only one hit and three walks.

"He's made huge progress," manager Jim Leyland said. "I'm very pleased with the command around the strike zone. I'm very, very thrilled with the progress he's made. And I've never been on a team where teammates are pulling harder for a guy.

"He came in a totally different guy."

It's way, way too early to talk roster spot, but in-and-out outings by RHPs Jeremy Bonderman and Armando Galarraga and LHP Nate Robertson have left Leyland scratching his notepad on a nightly basis. Even his nominal No. 3 starter, Max Scherzer, got lit up his first two times out.

So the manager took the occasion of a rained-out game March 12 to convene his pitchers for a gentle-yet-stern reminder that the object of the game is to get hitters out.

"I told them how critical the next 10 days would be, what I expected, and how I went about my judgments, so they're very aware of my feelings on what good pitchers do," Leyland said. "I think they got the point. I wanted to give them thoughts that I have. I don't want to surprise anybody. I wanted them to be prepared for expectations.

"Basically, it was good old-fashioned facts on the line. There wasn't anything colorful about it. It was your basic ABCs."

The gist of it was that he likes it a lot when umpires use their right hand.

"This manager judges pitchers on how they get people out throwing strikes at the major league level," Leyland said. "You don't get people out on balls, unless it's on a nasty split (split-finger fastball). You need to throw strikes and get people out in the strike zone.

"There's a message there for everybody on the team. If you're gonna pitch 2-and-0, you're gonna get your (tail) kicked. (Justin) Verlander, maybe, can get by throwing 2-and-0. But that's how I judge pitchers: How does he get people out when he throws it over the plate -- and does he get it over the plate?

"If you're afraid of the bat, you can't pitch."

--RHP Justin Verlander became the first pitcher to go four innings when he reached that limit Friday in his second start of the exhibition season. Manager Jim Leyland held Verlander back in the early going to get him on track for the season opener in Kansas City, where he will match up against RHP Zack Greinke. Verlander allowed six hits and two runs in his four innings, striking out two and walking none.

--3B Brandon Inge made his first start of the exhibition season Saturday, roughly a week ahead of schedule, and played three innings in a split-squad game against the New York Yankees at Marchant Stadium. Inge had surgery on both knees Nov. 3 for patella tendinitis. He acknowledges there is lingering pain but it isn't on the order of last season, and he's been working hard taking groundballs and batting practice since arriving in camp last month.

--2B Scott Sizemore is experiencing some off-and-on soreness in his repaired left ankle, prompting manager Jim Leyland to give him occasional days off at a time when he needs to play every day to get ready for the season. "My range is good," Sizemore said after a recent spring game. "I'm maybe still a step off but felt good out there." "This thing is really an issue now," Leyland said. "I've got to keep him healthy, but I've got to get him ready, too." Sizemore wasn't hitting well but said it wasn't because of the ankle.

--C Alex Avila still doesn't know whether he'll make Detroit's opening-day roster, and it remains something that probably will go down to the waning days of spring training. Manager Jim Leyland and GM Dave Dombrowski both say Avila would best be served by spending most of the season in the minors to hone his defensive skills, but he wields a power left-handed bat the Tigers could use. "We're going to do what we think is best for the Detroit Tigers to win," Leyland said, at the same time cautioning against reading anything into that. "I'm not close (to a decision). When I am, I'll let you know. There's no decision made, and there will be no hints. You can form your own opinion, but you are wasting your own time asking me." "The decision that's made is what will be best for the team," Avila said. "Honestly, I don't think about it too much. If you did, it would drive you crazy. I just come in and work on what I need to work on and play as hard as I can."

--RHP Jacob Turner sparkled with scoreless stints in his first two exhibition appearances, first working two scoreless innings in a split squad game and then pitching a scoreless inning against the New York Yankees his next time out. Still, there's no chance Turner could make the team because Detroit's No. 1 draft choice last June has yet to throw a pitch in a regular-season game. Turner, 18, was prepping for his final high school season at this time a year ago. Against the Yankees on Wednesday, Turner struck out the side, although he walked two and hit one. "It was a thrill to be out there facing a team like the Yankees," Turner said. "It was a cool experience. I'll never forget it, and it will help me in the long run." "I like pitchers who get people out throwing strikes," manager Jim Leyland said. "That's how I judge pitchers. Turner went right after them, and when he threw some strikes, they didn't hit them. He looked like a professional pitcher, which he is. He doesn't appear to let anything bother him. He's got poise and charisma and did very well." Turner has a superior curve and his fastball, which sits normally around 94 mph, was clocked at a peak of 97 against the Yankees. "I'm just trying to get ready for the year and make a good impression," Turner said.

--LHP Bobby Seay might open the season on the disabled list. Seay has yet to pitch in an exhibition game after battling bursitis/tendinitis in his left shoulder. He threw from 60 feet recently "with no discomfort," according to manager Jim Leyland, after not throwing for a week. But Seay has said he'll need 8-12 outings to get ready for the season, and he has yet to build up his arm to regular throwing strength. "I hope so," he said when asked if he could be ready for opening day. "That's a tough question right now. I can't predict that."

--LHP Dontrelle Willis encouraged his manager, Jim Leyland, with four scoreless innings in his first two exhibition outings. "He's made huge progress," Leyland said. "I'm very pleased with the command around the strike zone. I'm very, very thrilled with the progress he's made. And I've never been on a team where teammates are pulling harder for a guy." Willis, who had allowed one hit and three walks, "came in a totally different guy" this spring, according to Leyland. Willis has spent the bulk of his first two seasons with the Tigers on the disabled list with an anxiety disorder and has given Detroit just one win since signing a three-year contract, a deal that expires at the end of this season.

--RHP Joel Zumaya needs to work in more curves and fastballs because hitters are getting used to his triple-digit fastball, in the opinion of his manager, Jim Leyland. "The days of being able to throw the fastball up and in, down and away and intimidate a few people -- those days are gone," Leyland said of Zumaya. "He's going to have to use his pitches, because up here they hit a bullet if (the pitch) doesn't move. If you don't have something to put in somebody's mind as a hitter, I don't care how hard you throw. But he's got a nice (curve) and a decent changeup. As long as he's healthy, I'll take my chances."

Zumaya has been rocked at times both this spring and in the past because he's too predictable in use of his fastball. "I don't want to change his personality -- he's an adrenaline guy," Leyland said. "But we can make him more effective by (having him) use his curve a little more and use his change once in awhile to start a hitter. Throw one 86 mph the first pitch and then throw 98 or 100 on the next pitch."

--CF Austin Jackson is passing the first test in his battle to convince the Tigers he can play center field and lead off. The next hurdle will be to keep hitting when pitchers start refining their curves and sliders. "He could be a huge weapon for us," Leyland said. "We're just going to keep throwing him out there, let him play, and figure out some things. But I'm very pleased with what I've seen so far from Austin Jackson."

BY THE NUMBERS: 2 -- Consecutive exhibition games in which manager Jim Leyland had to remove his starter in the first inning, neither time because of an injury. RHP Jeremy Bonderman's comeback hit a snag when he didn't get out of the first inning March 7, and RHP Max Scherzer got torched in the opening inning March 8. Leyland said he couldn't recall ever having to do that in a spring game.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Most of the time, you're searching for one left-hander. You're going to the drive-in looking for one. We've got a lot of them. And they're good, too." -- Tigers manager Jim Leyland on having so many lefty relievers in camp. He will probably carry three -- maybe four if they beat out competing right-handers.

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