Return to the image of Willis taking life off of his pitches to get the ball over the plate last June against the Indians, and his potential to dominate a Major League lineup had to seem at least questionable.
But of all the images to show what Willis' 6 1/3 scoreless innings signified, what Tuesday's 4-0 shutout of the Rangers meant, the sight of a Comerica Park crowd rising to its feet to cheer him as he walked to the dugout did it best. This was a young man who pitched in near-silence against Tigers Minor Leaguers during a Spring Training camp game in an empty ballpark.
The fact that Willis cooled off baseball's hottest team was one thing. The fact that it generated that sort of emotion, both from the 23,756 in attendance and from Willis in return, was another.
It gave manager Jim Leyland chills.
"I think everybody's pulling for this kid," Leyland said, "and I thought that was tremendous."
It gave Willis two separate emotions as he headed into the dugout in line for his first win since Sept. 25, 2007. He very much wants to get back to the routine of being a reliable starting pitcher every five days, but he couldn't deny that this day was special.
"I was upset," Willis said, "because I walked the last guy. But I appreciated it. I really appreciate the city. It's just a great city and a great sports town. I really appreciate everybody standing by me and giving me support."
Six days after Willis returned to the big leagues, he rejoined the ranks of stingy Major League pitchers. Though last week's no-decision at Minnesota showed some quality pitches and ample competitiveness, it was nothing like the show he put on Tuesday, when he sent down 17 consecutive batters and topped out at 93 mph on his fastball.
Michael Young's first-inning double and Andruw Jones' ensuing four-pitch walk were the only baserunners Texas had until Jones worked out of an 0-2 count to draw a one-out walk in the seventh, taking a high fastball on Willis' 100th pitch of the night. In between was a mix of fastballs, changeups, breaking balls and other pitches.
He threw just about everything he could at the Rangers. Most importantly, he threw it where he wanted, and with consistency.
"He was challenged in some ways," said catcher Gerald Laird. "He got some guys into three-ball counts, and he was able to make the pitch when he needed to, and throw strikes when he needed to. And that was huge."
Laird went to the mound to keep Willis' spirits up after his first-inning walk. Willis recovered to retire Marlon Byrd for the third out, then came back out for the second inning and struck out the side on three different pitches. He hit the outside corner against a left-handed hitter, spotting a fastball to David Murphy for a called third strike. He dove an offspeed pitch outside to send down Nelson Cruz swinging, then set up Chris Davis with fastballs up for a slider that sent him down swinging.
From there, Willis' building confidence and improving pitches made the Rangers look like a punchless team, rather than winners of seven in a row. Like the Twins, they came to the plate looking to wait out Willis early, and his first-pitch strikes to 15 of the 22 hitters he faced set himself up for his out pitches.
"I saw a lot of pitches that really had good life on them," Leyland said. "They mishit them."
The 17 straight outs is a season best for any Tigers pitcher. The mere five balls put in play that escaped the infield in that stretch allowed his infield defense to help him out with quality stops.
Beyond the defensive plays behind Willis, from a jumping catch by first baseman Miguel Cabrera in the fifth to Josh Anderson's full-stride running catch on the left-field warning track to deny Elvis Andrus an extra-base hit in the sixth, the Tigers supported their left-hander with one run in each of the first three innings. Jeff Larish and Laird hit sacrifice flies in the first and third, respectively. Ramon Santiago doubled and scored on Placido Polanco's single in the second.
Willis began the seventh by falling behind on a 3-0 count to Young, then recovered to run the count full and get a fly out to the warning track in right. Another walk to Jones, this one out of an 0-2 hole, brought out Leyland to end his outing while it was still a positive.
The ovation ended up being a nice bonus.
"I think you've got to remember," Leyland said, "this young man's been through a lot. You're tickled for him on a personal basis, and also obviously tickled for the team. I admire him for what he's gone through. He competes. Whether he's pitching or not, he comes to beat the other team."
Tuesday, for the first time as a member of the Tigers, he was able to do that.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less