Dontrelle Willis insists he had confidence in his comeback.
He might've been the one of the few.
In his first two years with the Detroit Tigers, Willis was 1-6 with an 8.27 ERA and more walks than innings pitched.
This season he is starting to perform like the pitcher the Tigers wanted when they acquired him along with Miguel Cabrera in a blockbuster trade with the Florida Marlins in December 2007.
The Tigers have had to wait a long time to get a positive return on their $29 million, three-year investment. They're not complaining, though, because it looked as if his career could've ended with a thud.
Willis struck out six — his highest total since 2007 — gave up just four hits and two walks while pitching into the seventh inning of a 3-0 win over the Minnesota Twins on Thursday. It was his first win in nearly a calendar year and just the second in two-plus seasons with the Tigers.
Even in the darkest days of his career, Willis said he didn't have a doubt he would bounce back.
“The sun shines on anybody,” he said. “If you work hard and humble yourself, I like your chances. It's a good feeling, but I'm not content. I think I can put together a nice season.”
Early in his career, Willis had two good seasons, earning the National League rookie of the year award and finishing as a Cy Young runner-up.
He burst on the scene in the majors as a 21-year-old rookie with a high leg kick, helping Florida win the 2003 World Series and winning an NL-high 22 games two years later.
Willis slipped from stardom the following two seasons, losing more than he won as he struggled to find the plate.
He thought his problems were mechanical and the Tigers claimed their were mental, putting him on the disabled list twice last season with an anxiety disorder.
Willis didn't agree with the diagnosis — and still doesn't.
“I'm not on any kind of medication,” he said. “So, what's the differential now? God has a funny way. If something goes wrong in one aspect, it seems to be going right in another. The worse I played, the closer me and my family got. But I always believed I'd be in this position, but I'm hungry for my next start.”
Willis' next scheduled outing is Tuesday night in Minnesota, where he will get a chance to win consecutive games for the first time in more than three years. He'll go into the start with a 1-1 record and 3.75 ERA.
While Willis doesn't buy that he had an anxiety disorder, he does think some soul-searching did him some good.
“Sometimes when you struggle, you have to humble yourself and take a step back and think about what makes you good,” he said. “Me having fun makes me good. There's no amount of money that can provide joy. I love playing this game.”
Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski refused to discuss what led to the lefty being put on the DL with an anxiety disorder, but Willis' agent doesn't think the move had anything to do with the Tigers trying to save money.
“I don't know if they got any relief from his contract with insurance, but I don't think that's why they did it,” Matt Sosnick said. “Dave went through a lot, setting up appointments for him to be evaluated by different people, and I'm 100 percent sure Dave didn't do that for show. The Tigers had experts tell them Dontrelle had an anxiety issue.”
The gregarious Willis is often the loudest voice in the clubhouse, making teammates laugh, and regularly sports an ear-to-earn grin that makes others smile.
His personality and up-and-down career have created a “neat situation,” according to Tigers manager Jim Leyland.
“I don't think I've ever seen teammates pull for a guy harder than they're pulling for him,” Leyland said. “Everybody is pulling for him to get back. I think he feels that. I think he understands that and feels the vibes of it. I do.”
“The biggest thing is the team is confident behind me,” he said. “It's key for our team for me to be in the back of the rotation as the 'elder statesman' at 28.”Twins pitcher Carl Pavano was a teammate when Willis was a 21-year-old Marlin and marvels at how little has changed about him as a person and believes his pitching future can be bright again.
“Every time I come to this park, I see the same kid that I won a World Series with in 2003, and that I watched dominate the National League and win rookie of the year,” Pavano said. “That kid hasn't changed, and I really think he's on his way to turning all of this around.”