Rooting for Dontrelle Willis

I had a weekend away, happily, from a computer, traveling a few states south for a wedding. But my Sunday night routine didn’t change much — come home, drop down my bag, flip open the laptop, and tune into the Sunday night game of the week.

The Reds were hosting the Atlanta Braves, both teams eying the top of their respective divisions, and the Reds were up 3-2 when I tuned in midway through, around the fifth inning. And the announcers were noting how good the starting pitcher had looked so far, how he could mean the difference for the Reds in the pennant chase.

They continued, while I was half distracted with unpacking and airing out a stuffy apartment, noting his long road back to the majors. Then came some otherwise innocuous comment, acknowledging another 1-2-3 inning for Willis.

Willis? Dontrelle Willis?

Dontrelle Willis!

Obviously, I had my rooting interest for the rest of the game.

When Willis broke in with the Florida Marlins in 2003, he was as entertaining as could be imagined. He had a unique delivery that saw him bow, kick, spin and explode on his way to the plate. He had his hat cocked just a bit to the side, chewed gum, and smiled a huge smile. I don’t know him personally, but I have a hard time believing he didn’t love the game and love the moment whenever he pitched.

On this night, he didn’t seem to have the same giddy-up in his delivery as he did in his wild days with Florida, and he looked a little older (though he’s still only 29). But the high leg kick was there, and, more importantly, his control. The great thing about Willis was not just that he was a unique presence on the mound, but that he was so damn good. The season he was Rookie of the Year in the National League, he struck out 2.45 batters for every one he walked. In 2005, he won 22 games against a 2.63 ERA, 170 strikeouts and only 55 walks. He was fun, and he delivered.

The downslide began the next season when he was all of 24 years old. In nearly the same number of innings pitched, the strikeouts when down, the walks climbed and he hit 19 batters, up from 8 the season before. The trends continued (strikeouts down, walks up) in 2007, and he was packaged along with Miguel Cabrera to Detroit before the 2008 season.

Cabrera was the prize in that trade, and Willis was a gamble that didn’t pay off for the Tigers. In three seasons with Detroit, Willis only made 22 starts, he walked more batters than he whiffed, and he spent more than his share of his time in the minors trying to find his game.

He was traded to Arizona midway through the 2010 season, made five unremarkable starts, and was given his release. It looked like the inevitable had come true, and that Willis’ comet had passed.

Finding Willis on the mound for a contender was a welcome surprise to my Sunday night. Best of all, he looked good. He struck out three Braves, pitched into the seventh inning, and even picked up a single in the fourth — he was always an above-average hitting pitcher, a career .236 hitter with 8 home runs.

Willis was lifted with the game tied 3-3, and the Reds hung on to give Drew Stubbs the chance to be the hero, hitting Scott Linebrink’s first pitch of the ninth inning into the stands for a walk-off home run. The Reds had a win, thanks in part to a quality start by Willis.

Is Willis back? It’s hard to say. When pitchers lose it as publicly and dramatically as Willis did, it’s rare to see any kind of comeback. But there’s a chance, and if he’s back, he could tip the scales in the Reds’ favor in a short playoff series.

I’m keeping an eye on Cincinnati for the rest of the season. I can’t think of many scenarios cooler than Willis staring, bowing, dipping and twirling towards the plate with a World Series in sight.

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