Willis positive after Minors start

Willis positive after Minors start

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Dontrelle Willis' second start for Class A Lakeland on Saturday night was a step forward for the 2005 National League Cy Young Award runner-up, albeit a small one.

Willis had his longest outing since a May 17 contest with Triple-A Toledo, tossing 4 1/3 innings in his third appearance for Lakeland. The lefty gave up three runs on four hits in his second start for the Flying Tigers.

"I feel good," said a smiling Willis. "Everything feels good."

Willis struggled with his control, getting just 37 of his 73 pitches over for strikes. But the southpaw wasn't overly concerned.

"I feel like my strength is there," Willis said. "Especially when you haven't thrown that many pitches in a long time. I feel like my strength is there all the way through and I'm around the zone effectively. Even when I miss, I miss a lot around the zone instead of erratic."

That's good news for Detroit, as Willis was sent to Lakeland in early June to work on severe control issues.

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

Since his demotion, his progress has been slow and the Tigers have been tight-lipped about a specific schedule.

Willis was diagnosed with right knee tendinitis on July 8 and didn't make his first start for Lakeland until July 17 (although he tossed two innings of relief on June 29).

His first start was a good one, allowing four hits and a one run over three innings and 26 of his 32 pitches were for strikes.

On Saturday, Willis -- who has altered part of his pitching mechanics -- praised the work of Flying Tigers pitching coach Joe Coleman, and said he will continue to build on each successive start.

It is a mantra echoed by manager Andy Barkett, who had high praise for Willis, both on and off the mound.

"I saw progress today," Barkett said. "I saw a guy on his way back. He was able to throw strikes. ... He was able to command his breaking ball. He threw some pretty good [changeups]. As soon as that fastball comes back, which I think it's coming, he's going to be able to help us in the big leagues. And we're all looking forward to that."

Barkett added that Willis is tentatively scheduled to take the hill on a regular four days' rest, and the hurler reported no pain or difficulty afterwards.

In fact, Willis wore an ear-to-ear grin as he laughed and ate a postgame meal with teammates.

The former 22-game winner breezed through a list of positives and "thank you's" within the organization, and appeared to be relaxed and confident in what lies ahead.

"He's getting a feel for pitching again," Barkett said, adding that the team was all rooting for Willis' return to Detroit.

The rooting seemed to go both ways as Willis voiced his approval over handshakes and barbecued ribs.

"Tell [the Tigers] every one of these guys has been great," he said, of his Flying Tigers teammates. "And they should all be called up."

With any luck, at least part of that prediction will come true. The Tigers signed Willis to a three-year, $29 million contract in the offseason and are hoping the hurler can rejoin the Majors sometime this season.

"I'd love to have him back," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "I'd love to have the Dontrelle that we saw before. If you can get him back, that helps a lot. But when Dontrelle was sent out, that wasn't the Dontrelle you saw before. Hopefully that's getting straightened out, and I think it is."

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