Willis setting sights on return to Majors

Willis setting sights on Majors

DETROIT -- Dontrelle Willis made it clear that he has his eyes set on returning to the Major Leagues this season.

Willis spoke to the Detroit media Saturday afternoon for the first time since the Tigers optioned him to Class A Lakeland in early June to iron out severe control problems.

The left-hander has been in Detroit over the past few days after having his knee examined at the Detroit Medical Center on Monday. Team physician Dr. Stephen Lemos diagnosed Willis with patella tendinitis in his right knee and gave him a cortisone shot.

Wearing a special brace on the knee, Willis had several bullpen sessions this week with pitching coach Chuck Hernandez. He will have one more session Sunday before returning to Lakeland, where he will continue his program with the organization's pitching coordinator, John Matlack.

Willis hopes it's not for long. He wants to get back to the Majors as soon as possible.

"Every time I step on the mound, that's the plan," Willis said. "For any Minor Leaguer, you try to get to the big leagues.

"I'm just trying to get back to the basics, and doing that right and not taking that for granted and just trying to rebuild it from there."

Willis, a former 22-game winner and the 2005 National League Cy Young Award runner-up, wouldn't comment much on what changes, if any, are being made to his mechanics. He said that he has worked on his consistency more than anything.

"Some days are better than others, but if you have a consistent basis, you have something to go back to," Willis said. "I just wasn't able to get back to where I wanted to get back to in time."

The Tigers sent Willis to Lakeland after one of the worst starts during his career on June 10. In his first full start since coming off the disabled list with a hyperextended right knee, Willis lasted just 1 1/3 innings after surrendering eight runs against the Indians. He recorded more walks (five) than outs (four), and two of the three hits he allowed went over the fence.

In five outings this season with Detroit, Willis walked 21 batters over 11 1/3 innings, allowing 13 runs on seven hits with five strikeouts and recording a 10.13 ERA.

Fans have wondered whether Willis' struggles stem from the pressure of living up to his new contract. After acquiring Willis in the December trade that also included Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers inked Willis to a three-year, $29 million contract. Willis scoffed Saturday at the suggestion that pressure attributed to his troubles.

"Not at all. You definitely don't think about the money you're making when you're walking guys," Willis said. "I don't think that was the case at all."

Willis made one outing June 29 at Lakeland, in which he allowed one run on one hit and three walks over two innings. He hasn't pitched in a game since.

Willis said the demotion to Class A hasn't been tough. He called it "necessary," and said it has not affected his confidence. The lefty appeared humble, not bitter or angry.

"I'm accountable for everything," Willis said. "I'm just not throwing the ball how I want to. But that doesn't mean I don't want to play baseball anymore. I still love the game. It's just making an adjustment. Sometimes you work hard, but you have bad habits."

The Tigers have a plan in place to fix those bad habits. Willis has a plan to pitch in Detroit again this season.

"You have to be a man and understand that everybody wants to be a .900 hitter and everybody wants to be undefeated, but that's not the case," he said. "You continue to work hard and continue to have fun and, in the end, you'll be happy with what you've done."

Scott McNeish is an associate reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.