"I have not lost my mind," Leyland said after Friday's 7-4 win over the Mariners at Safeco Field. "We have a lot invested in [Willis]. We can't just let the kid be sitting there."
The Tigers activated Willis last Thursday from the 15-day disabled list, where he had been ever since hyperextending his right knee in his second start as a Tiger on April 11 at Chicago. He was put into the bullpen to get his work without shaking up the rotation, but he has pitched just once since his return, an inning of work on May 23 against the Twins.
Since then, the performance of the Tigers rotation has meant few innings available for the bullpen in general, let alone long relief for Willis. Tigers starters had lasted at least six innings in every game since last Saturday, including four consecutive starts of at least seven innings, before Nate Robertson left with two outs in the sixth Friday night.
Much as Leyland has liked his rotation's work lately, he had to find work for Willis. It wasn't any order from the front office, he said. It was something he came up with as the best way he could find to get Willis some innings.
"Here's a 20-game winner sitting in no-man's land, a man without a home right now," Leyland said. "I have to try to do something."
The other situation that needed a solution was at third base, where Leyland hoped to find ways to work in Brandon Inge without taking Carlos Guillen out of the lineup. With that in mind, Leyland revealed that Guillen has been taking fly balls with outfield coach Andy Van Slyke.
"Whatever's best for the team," Guillen said.
The goal is to at least give Leyland the option of playing Guillen in left field on occasion and give Inge some starts at third.
"Is Guillen going to be out there? I don't know," Leyland said. "But I'm going to do whatever I think maximizes the chances of our ballclub. That's what I'm going to do."
There are no plans to unseat Marcus Thames as the left fielder anytime soon, especially since Leyland just moved Thames into the lineup on a regular basis to see what impact he can have on the lineup.
It's all part of Leyland's effort to try to get the team in some kind of flow, as he put it. He felt like they had some of that flow on Friday, when they pounced on Mariners starter Carlos Silva for seven runs in the first inning and held on for the win. The game showed some of Leyland's thinking about where to take this team.
Miguel Cabrera batted sixth and, whether related, went 3-for-5 with what Leyland said was some of the best concentration he's seen from Cabrera in his at-bats. Thames batted fifth and had an RBI double, barely missing a home run on a foul ball down the left-field line in the opening inning.
In the field, Inge worked behind the plate for seven innings, then shifted over to third in a defensive switch in the eighth. Ivan Rodriguez entered behind the plate in place of Guillen, who started at third.
"I just felt that we probably ended the game tonight with our best defense on the field," Leyland said. "Now, you might not be able to do that every night because you might have to pinch-hit, but I want to try to do it."
They're two unconventional moves, but they come in unconventional times. As Leyland pointed out before the game, June is approaching, and the Tigers need to try to get in sync.
"I don't know if it's going to get better or not," Leyland said, "but we're not going to sit here ... and not do something."