Willis has never been on the disabled list in his five seasons in the Major Leagues, but his two career starts on Chicago's South Side haven't been good for his health. His only other start at U.S. Cellular Field was last summer, and he left after one inning with a forearm strain. The injury bug struck him again in his return, but in a more freakish circumstance under less than ideal conditions, thanks to late afternoon and early evening rain to go with temperatures falling through the 40s.
Willis, who walked seven batters over five-plus innings against these same White Sox last Saturday in Detroit, again came out battling his command by walking Carlos Quentin to lead off the bottom of the first. He was in his delivery for his first pitch to Orlando Cabrera when his right leg slipped off the mound, lunging him forward in an awkward position as he grabbed the back of his right knee.
The game started on schedule in light showers after heavier rains passed through prior to the game. Grounds crew workers applied drying compound to the mound after taking off the tarp just before game time. Still, Willis dismissed the idea that a wet mound played any role.
"I don't think it was wet at all," Willis said. "I think I just missed [with a cleat]. It just got out from under me. It was just a freak thing that happened. There's nobody to blame."
Willis stayed in the game after some warmup pitches and some persistence with head athletic trainer Kevin Rand and manager Jim Leyland, but he proceeded to walk Cabrera. With two on and no outs, Willis fell behind Jim Thome, including a wild pitch in the dirt that advanced both runners and put Thome in a 2-1 count.
That's when Rand and Leyland came to the mound again. Although Willis appeared to be pleading his case, the left-hander was removed from the game in favor of Aquilino Lopez, who had not been warming up but followed with four innings of one-run ball.
"He said he's all right. He's tough. He wants to compete," Leyland said of Willis. "But Kevin didn't like the way he was moving his knee around and the way it was landing. He didn't like it at all. So I said that's enough. I'm not going to take a chance."
Any lengthy absence for Willis would be another blow to a starting rotation that has struggled in the season's first couple weeks. Jeremy Bonderman is the only Detroit starter to record an out in the seventh inning, and that was in his first start, against Kansas City on April 3. The Tigers went to an eight-man bullpen and 13-man pitching staff last weekend to help provide extra arms, and Leyland indicated they could call up another reliever temporarily if they had to put Willis on the disabled list. His spot in the rotation doesn't come up again until Wednesday.
Starting pitchers at Triple-A Toledo include Virgil Vasquez, who has scattered three runs and struck out 14 batters over 10 innings, and Armando Galarraga, who has won both of his starts with three runs allowed on seven hits over 12 innings with 11 strikeouts.