Another step forward for Willis, Robertson

Another step forward for Willis, Robertson

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Dontrelle Willis wore a T-shirt on Monday that showed a selection of school equipment on the front with the words: "Tools of the Job." Monday was the chance for Willis and Nate Robertson to put their selection of tools to work in the fight for their jobs, but they got their work done in different ways.

Gerald Laird knows how Robertson's slider looked last season, so he knows how much sharper it looked as Blue Jays hitters offered at it and missed Monday.

Laird also knows the hubbub about Willis and his velocity compared with his younger days. When Laird felt the pop in his mitt, he was encouraged. When he looked up and saw 93 mph flash on the Dunedin Stadium scoreboard, he had the statistical evidence to back it up.

He isn't backing anyone in particular for the two open spots in Detroit's rotation, but he's backing the notion that this was a good day for Tigers pitching.

"I'm back there for all of them," Laird said after the Tigers' 8-2 win. "I'm giving them all the best I can."

Robertson's 74 pitches were plenty to help further his case that he's ready to be a full-time Major League starter again. Willis' 11 pitches didn't nearly take him that far, but with eight of them at 90 mph or better, they might've helped his case just as well.

Sunday's rainout and the pitching reshuffling that went with it took some innings away from the rotation competition that now heads into its final week and a half. Robertson's start was a chance for him to stretch out his pitch count, while Willis' relief inning essentially amounted to a side session for him to test out some things against Blue Jays hitters before his next scheduled start Thursday afternoon against the same team at Joker Marchant Stadium.

While Robertson scattered two runs on five hits over 4 1/3 innings with four strikeouts, Willis pitched a scoreless sixth -- despite two hits -- thanks to a double-play groundout. But it was more about the pitches themselves, and the way the pitchers used them.

Robertson, facing the Jays for the third time this spring, again showed his ability to mix his pitches and do more than pound the inside corner. He threw first-pitch strikes to 16 of the 20 batters he faced, which allowed him to get ahead in most counts and work on his secondary stuff from there.

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He was aggressive while being intelligent about it. That's how manager Jim Leyland wants to see him throw, and that's what he's doing.

"I like getting outs with other pitches. That's the thing," Robertson said. "Strikeouts are fine if you can get to a strikeout count and then make a pitch, but I like getting the ball in play early on pitches other than fastballs. If I'm doing it with a breaking ball or a changeup, that means I'm commanding the zone, they're seeing something that's enticing and getting out front a little bit. That's a big thing."

Robertson's last out, and his only batter of the fifth inning, was a first-pitch changeup that Aaron Hill flied out to left. He used a combination of three sliders and offspeed pitches to send down Vernon Wells swinging after a 2-0 count to lead off the second inning. He mixed in a couple of curveballs just to show he could, though he paid for a first-pitch breaking ball that Randy Ruiz sent out to left for a two-run homer that comprised all of Toronto's scoring.

"I think Nate's feeling good about himself," Leyland said. "He's doing fine. He's doing all right."

Willis said he wasn't intending to respond to criticisms about his recent velocity when he took the mound for the sixth, but his 93-mph heater had that kind of impact, even though it was high and out of the zone. He came back down with three more fastballs, the last of them a 91-mph fastball that sent down Lyle Overbay swinging.

John Buck's ensuing double deep to right-center and Ruiz's grounder on the next pitch put Willis into trouble. But he got out of it with a 90-mph fastball that handcuffed Travis Snider into an inning-ending double play.

"He let some balls go today," Laird said.

If there was any statement on Willis' part, it wasn't that.

"I just wanted to show skip whatever he wants me to do, I'll be ready," Willis said. "If I have the opportunity to pick up where Bobby Seay left off, whatever he wants me to do, I'll do it."

That doesn't mean that's what the Tigers have in mind for him. It certainly gives them some flexibility if he could do it, but if he can get swings and misses consistently, he could do it in any inning.

Monday's game didn't seal any decision, but it made the decision look like a better one.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.