MIAMI, April 8 -- He had everything Friday night. The high leg kick. The moving fastball. The sinker that dove to the dirt. And, for good measure, throw in the bat, which was twice as productive as any held by the Washington Nationals. For Dontrelle Willis, it felt like that magical summer of 2003 again, when he came up as a 21-year-old kid fresh from Class AA Carolina -- and electrified South Florida.
"He's capable of doing those things," Nationals right fielder Jose Guillen said. "He's a good one, and tonight, he pitched the way he's capable of pitching. What else do you say? He makes all the pitches."
Florida's Dontrelle Willis throws a complete game shutout as the Marlins rough up the Nationals, 9-0.
(Alan Diaz - AP)
The Nationals saw an assortment of those pitches Friday night -- 97, to be exact -- and managed to hit just five of them safely. Willis dominated, allowing no extra-base hits, preventing Washington from putting a runner in scoring position until the ninth, and further impressing a crowd of 19,327 by adding a pair of singles in a 9-0 shutout.
When Willis was called up in 2003, his combination of charisma and talent endeared him to fans immediately. But even with all his fist pumps and energy, his mantra is simple: Throw strikes. Throw them early. Throw them often. Just throw them.
"If you pound the strike zone," Willis said, "they have no choice but to be aggressive. No one wants to go down 0-and-2."
That philosophy served Willis perfectly against the Nationals, who were fresh off a three-game series in Philadelphia in which they had pounded out 40 hits, including 14 for extra bases. Not against Willis.
"This is the way he is," Marlins Manager Jack McKeon said. "He throws strikes, he wins."
As impressive as Willis was, the evening was just a taste of what is to come for the Nationals in the National League East. Willis isn't even at the top of the Marlins' rotation, where potential aces Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett reside. Washington will face Beckett on Sunday.
Then, consider the team's next stop, Atlanta. The Braves have inserted former Cy Young winner John Smoltz back in the rotation, and though the Nationals will miss him in the first trip through, they'll likely face new Atlanta ace Tim Hudson. Enough? That doesn't even get to New York, where Pedro Martinez now pitches for the Mets.
Friday showed, then, that the Nationals better take advantage of Philadelphia's weak bullpen, which they did in comeback victories Wednesday and Thursday. But to truly be competitive in this deep division, they must occasionally beat outstanding pitching.
"You got to be up there ready to hit," center fielder Brad Wilkerson said. "Most of the guys that have that kind of stuff, they're going to go after you. If they get ahead of you, that's when they're unbeatable. . . . They've got good enough stuff where they can pitch you in the strike zone and still get you out. That's the key to number one guys versus some other guys. These guys, they go after you early -- and they get you out early."
There's the tale of the Nationals' night. Wilkerson singled to lead off the game -- and Willis retired 11 of the next 12 he faced. Vinny Castilla drew a walk to begin the fifth -- and Willis retired the next nine guys. He also took advantage of four double play balls, which helped him face just 29 hitters -- two over the minimum.
"Every pitch, with him, has movement," said left fielder J.J. Davis, who bounced into two double plays. "That's how he gets all those ground balls."
Nationals starter Tomo Ohka could have used a few more groundballs. He allowed just five hits in six innings, but two were homers -- solo shots from Miguel Cabrera in the first and Mike Lowell in the sixth.
So when Ohka departed, the Nationals were, technically, still in the game, down just 3-0. But the Washington bullpen, the key to the two wins in Philadelphia, imploded a bit in the eighth. Cabrera blew the game open with a monstrous two-run blast off Antonio Osuna, who gave up more runs that he ever had in his career -- six -- while pitching just one-third of an inning.
So two of the symbols of the Marlins' run to the 2003 World Series title -- Cabrera and Willis -- showed that they're ready to try it again. Willis, a gifted hitter, emphasized the point with a two-run single. He's now 10 for 20 in his career against pitchers from the Washington/Montreal franchise.
"In '03, when him and Cabrera came up came up," McKeon said, "the young kids, they just supplied so much energy to the rest of the ballclub."
Friday night, it was there again. Willis went just 10-11 last year. But 2005?
"Wins and losses, they'll come," he said. "If I throw like I'm capable, we'll be okay."