"Oh boy," Leyland said afterwards, recalling the moment.
Not long ago, it might've been tough to imagine Willis getting that kind of appreciation from 25 people in Detroit, let alone a crowd of more than 25,000. He had a warm reception in Spring Training, but this is different.
In a city that appreciates a good comeback story, Willis has the chance to be a big one. His manager and teammates hope that his first win of the season is just the start of a good run.
"I think it all comes full circle," Willis said later. "I think if I wasn't the person I am and someone who really truly works hard and really appreciates everything -- and I think people from the outside see that -- I think you wouldn't get that. I firmly believe it. I was upset because I walked a guy, but I'm really thankful."
His coaches and teammates have seen it from the moment he came to Spring Training in early January. The comeback isn't anywhere near complete, the Tigers caution, but Thursday was a big step.
"Everybody's pulling for him," Leyland said. "I don't think there's any question. And he's an interesting guy when he's doing good. I think everybody was suffering with him some. But we just have to build on it."
Willis' building block ended up being a huge step for the Tigers. On a day when they desperately needed innings from their starter to help rest an overworked bullpen and a stingy start to help counter the all-too-familiar mastery from old nemesis Carl Pavano, the Tigers got more than they could've asked from Willis to start, and they were able to use their late-inning relief corps as they wanted rather than as needed.
Willis' first victory since May 19 of last year sent the Twins to their first series loss since early last September. And what could've easily ended up as a Minnesota series sweep and a continuation of its division dominance resulted in a big boost for Detroit.
That gave Willis just as much of a smile as the reception.
"I'm finally in a role where I think my teammates believe in me and they need me," Willis said. "When teammates believe in you and say they need you, it's really gratifying. It makes you work a little bit harder. You want to take a little bit longer in that bullpen [session]. It makes you want to lift weights a little longer. You want to run a little longer, because you know you're needed. In a situation right now where our best guys are struggling, it's vital for us in the back of the rotation to pitch quality [starts]."
Though Willis (1-1) has had some solid outings in his return from essentially two lost seasons as a Tiger, he hadn't gotten a victory to go with it, thanks partly to two low-scoring duels in which he picked up a no-decision and a defeat. More important than wins, Leyland said before the game, was Willis pitching effectively enough to give Detroit a chance.
It wasn't simply a matter of Willis pounding the strike zone against hitters who were going to wait him out. The Twins took that approach for the first few hitters, but then began swinging at his first pitches if they felt they could hit it.
He threw not only strikes, but some quality strikes. He threw fastballs with enough movement that Twins hitters struggled to hit them with the barrel of the bat. They didn't have Joe Mauer or Justin Morneau in the lineup, the first time for that since May 5, 2006, but they had enough offensive catalysts to make Willis pay for mistakes.
Building on his last start against the Angels a week and a half ago, Willis continued to change speeds effectively once he got ahead in the count. He led off the game by inducing a swing and a miss from Denard Span on a 1-2 slider, then in the third, Willis came back with a changeup to send Span down swinging to start an inning-ending double play, with Luke Hughes, who was trying to steal second, caught in a rundown at first.
His other four strikeouts were called third strikes, spotting fastballs on the outside corner.
Willis had a scoreless outing on his Detroit resume already; his other Tigers win featured six-plus scoreless against the Rangers. Not since 2006 had he pitched at least six scoreless with at least six strikeouts.
"I think the key is that he's keeping the ball down pretty good, he's changing speeds on the ball and it's moving," Leyland said. "I was really tickled with his control today."
Leyland wasn't the only one. To a player, one teammate after another did a little hop to congratulate Willis in the postgame line on the field. Even Pavano, Willis' teammate on the 2003 World Series champion Marlins, appreciated it.
"I saw the same kid that I won a World Series with in 2003 and watched dominate the National League and win Rookie of the Year [Award], the same kid that I see every time I come to this park and say hi to," Pavano said. "He's a great person. He's going to put it together. He's on his way. He looked really good out there. He's the opposing pitcher, but he did. He's going to turn it around."