"I think progress has definitely been made," manager Jim Leyland said after Willis' 5 1/3 innings of three-run ball. "The thing that I liked tonight is, he didn't let [the game] get away from him. Progress, you're looking for any signs of that, and I think we got some of that tonight."
It wasn't dominance, but it was the look of a pitcher in a groove. The results painted the same image.
Willis walked the first batter he faced to lead off the opening inning and the last batter he faced with one out in the sixth, but walked just one in between and reached just one other three-ball count. He gave up just one hit to a hitter other than shortstop Ben Zobrist, who has had a torrid series for the Rays (96-65). And after allowing the first two batters he faced to score, Zobrist's fifth-inning solo homer was the only run he surrendered.
"I felt the same," Willis said in comparing the night to his previous outings. "Just the results were different. As far as confidence, I've always felt that. Sometimes it's good to get hit in the mouth early and answer back. It shows the makeup of a ballclub. So I'm glad we won this ballgame."
While Willis was warming up for his outing, Jones was trying not to tear up on the field. The Tigers' career leader in saves was instead the opening act, honored with a pregame ceremony and presented with a career montage in video and art to mark his retirement. The overwhelming reception fans gave him for his speech made him more emotional.
It had an effect on some of his teammates, too.
"That's a special moment," Sheffield said. "It's nothing to be sad about. You have to celebrate. I was proud to be a part of it."
Sheffield would've been proud to be a part of history Saturday night, but it wasn't meant to be. The night's milestone home run came from Miguel Cabrera, whose 37th homer of the year pushed him past White Sox slugger Carlos Quentin for the American League lead. It left Cabrera poised to become the Tigers' first home run champion since Cecil Fielder in 1990.
Sheffield's mark on this contest, instead, came without a big swing. Showing the calmness to avoid swinging for the fences at bad pitches, Sheffield drew a sixth-inning leadoff walk that set up the game's deciding run on Edgar Renteria's go-ahead double off Jeff Niemann (2-2).
"A couple pitches, I thought about it," Sheffield admitted later. "But at the same time, the most important thing is to try to win the game. You have to play it that way."
The rally came too late for Willis to get the victory, which instead went to Aquilino Lopez (4-1) for 2 2/3 hitless innings. That didn't dampen the feeling coming out of Willis' season-closing performance.
Willis has battled control issues virtually all season, and he spent two and a half months in the Minor Leagues working on his mechanics before being called up to the Tigers (74-86) in September. The accomplished left-hander showed progress in his return start Sept. 15 before walking six batters over 2 1/3 innings at Cleveland last Sunday. His season finale was arguably his best outing of all.
It didn't look promising when four of Tampa Bay's first six batters reached base safely, including two walks and a Rocco Baldelli two-run double. Willis, however, settled down from there to retire 11 of 13 batters, including the side in order in the second and fourth innings. He nearly accomplished a quality start before a Dan Johnson walk with one out in the sixth ended his night two outs shy.
As he headed for the dugout, he received a solid, appreciative applause.
"I was being booed in the first, and they clapped for me in the sixth," Willis said. "That was a quick turnaround. I appreciate it."
It's arguably a solid snapshot of his season. Yet for all he has been through, it was a nice finish.
"It's definitely good to throw the ball well," Willis said. "But in the end, I know I've done everything I could to play the best baseball I could, so I have nothing to be ashamed of. I just have to make some adjustments for next year, but again, regardless of what the outcome's going to be, I know I worked very hard for this."