"Sometimes, it almost appears like we're sitting around, waiting to get beat," manager Jim Leyland said afterwards.
Willis tried his best to change that feeling. Hopping off the mound after strikeouts and pumping a fist after an inning-ending out, he was the source of some early energy and the escape from some later wildness.
The Tigers essentially put two starters in the same slot for this game in a piggyback start, allowing them to place Willis back in the rotation for the first time since he hyperextended his right knee on April 11 while still keeping Armando Galarraga on schedule. As it turned out, it wasn't simply a tale of two starters, but almost two Dontrelles.
Willis commanded the game early by attacking the strike zone for the first 2 1/3 innings. He reached three straight 0-2 counts in that stretch, scattered two hits and induced an inning-ending double play in the second.
After retiring Carlos Gonzalez to lead off the bottom of the third, Willis lost No. 9 hitter Kurt Suzuki to a walk, and battled from there. Suzuki was the first of four walks in a five-batter stretch, separated by a critical Bobby Crosby double play that ended the third.
Another set of back-to-back walks led off the fourth, but Willis showed some of his better stuff to get out of it. He struck out Emil Brown on a slider that broke inside as Brown tried to check his swing, then blew three fastballs off the outside corner past Travis Buck.
"It felt good for me to be able to compete, go out there and showcase my stuff," Willis said. "I was able to have fun, get out of some jams and make some key pitches to hitters."
Another walk to Daric Barton loaded the bases with two outs, but Willis escaped with a Carlos Gonzalez groundout to first. He was animated as Miguel Cabrera tagged the bag for the final out, and he received a warm reception from the Oakland crowd.
"That was pretty cool," Willis said. "I think they know how I feel about this organization, and especially the city of Oakland. They pretty much made me the player that I am."
No one got the ball in play out of the infield on Willis after the opening inning. Between walks and strikeouts, just three hitters put the ball in play on him anywhere in the third and fourth.
"I think he was OK," said Leyland, who wasn't sure how he would handle the rotation spot when it comes back up next week. "I think that there was a little bit of both. I saw a little of not letting it go, almost falling into that pattern of trying to place it there. But when he got in trouble, I was really impressed. I thought he really threw the ball very well. He tuned it up a notch."
A's starter Dana Eveland, by contrast, was wild for all 4 1/3 of his innings, and he eventually paid for it with a three-run fifth that included a Placido Polanco RBI single and a Miguel Cabrera sacrifice fly. Galarraga took over for Willis in the bottom of the inning and walked two of the first three batters he faced before Eric Chavez took him deep for a game-tying homer.
Galarraga retired the final seven batters he faced from there, keeping the game tied for Carlos Guillen's seventh-inning single to pull the Tigers ahead after Alan Embree walked the bases loaded. But Chavez struck again in the eighth, singling off just-recalled Casey Fossum, advancing on a walk and scoring on Buck's single when Rodriguez couldn't handle Clete Thomas' throw home.
"The walks were a huge part of that game," Leyland said. "Our walks burned us, and their walks didn't. We should've scored 10 runs. We just looked like we have no clue on how to knock in a run."
Despite 22 combined walks, none of them came with the bases loaded. The teams left a total of 26 runners on base. But while the A's went 3-for-11 with runners in scoring position, the Tigers went 3-for-15. Even with Guillen's hit in the seventh, the Tigers turned a bases-loaded, one-out chance into an inning-ending double play. Gonzalez threw out Thomas at the plate in the eighth, then Cabrera struck out with a runner on third and one out in the 11th before Crosby made a diving catch for the final out.
The last of the walks came from Freddy Dolsi, whose four-pitch walk to Crosby loaded the bases and extended the game for Cust. After swinging for the fences a couple times, he grounded a 1-2 pitch between first base and the mound. Cabrera fielded the ball, but Dolsi was late off the mound to break for the bag. Cust beat both of them to first base as Suzuki came home with the deciding run.
"He got me to do what he wanted me to do -- roll over it," Cust said of Dolsi. "I just didn't hit it hard enough for them to get me out."
With that, the A's went home winners. Willis was home with a no-decision but his strongest pitching as a Tiger. And the Tigers were still wondering about getting runners home.
"You can't make the mistakes we made and expect to win," Leyland said. "You can't do it. There were so many things going on in that game that we didn't do right, you can't win Major League ballgames playing that way."