Tigers Pitcher Dontrelle Willis Is Having Fun Again

Tigers pitcher Dontrelle Willis, trying to a rejuvenate his career, takes a 1-1 record into tonight's start in Baltimore.
Tigers pitcher Dontrelle Willis, trying to a rejuvenate his career, takes a 1-1 record into tonight's start in Baltimore. (By Duane Burleson -- Associated Press)
By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 29, 2009

BALTIMORE, May 28 -- Dontrelle Willis's laugh rang throughout the visitors' clubhouse of Oriole Park. He was amused by the attire of a teammate, a joke that caught everyone's attention. Willis's legs kicked, his fingers pointed and a smile never departed his face.

"Ahh, I love this," Willis exclaimed under his laugh.

It was this time of year, when spring turns into summer, that Willis first captured the attention of baseball fans. He was a 21-year-old pitcher with the Florida Marlins in 2003, dazzling with an unconventional pitching motion and a smile that never seemed to leave.

It appeared Willis was destined for a career of stardom. He made the all-star team, was awarded National League Rookie of the Year and won the World Series all in an abbreviated first season. At age 23 in 2005, he was 22-10.

Willis's career took a downward spiral after that season. He was traded to the Detroit Tigers before the 2008 season and was awarded a $29 million contract. Willis started seven times last year, did not win a game and spent time in the minor leagues.

Before the 2009 season, Willis was placed on the disabled list with an anxiety disorder. He returned on May 13 and has taken the first steps toward a rejuvenated career. He started three games, going 1-1 with a 3.57 ERA. His fourth start will be at Camden Yards on Friday against the Baltimore Orioles.

"He's pitched two very, very good ballgames," Tigers Manager Jim Leyland said. "I'm very pleased. I'm just kind of letting it happen and not talk about it much because I don't want to have everyone's expectation so high that it bothers the guy."

Willis's fall was a curious case. He was a victim of neither age nor physical injury, two symptoms that often dim a star and halt a career. At 27, Willis entered spring training with only one career stint on the disabled list. That was last season, and the cause was a hyperextended right knee -- nothing to do with the left arm that made him famous.

Instead, Willis tried too hard. With the big contract and the mammoth expectations, Willis became too fine with his pitches. Locating the ball from 60 feet 6 inches away became difficult, and he struggled to throw strikes.

Willis emphasized that he never lost the joy of arriving at the ballpark. He repeats that when asked about the success in Florida and the downtrodden days earlier this season.

"My personality doesn't change just because my baseball is terrible," Willis said. "This doesn't make me. This is what I do. I love doing it, and I'm appreciative to be blessed with the talent to do it, and that's why I work hard."

Al Avila, the Tigers' assistant general manager, said this is his first experience involving a player who has had an anxiety disorder diagnosed, although he has seen no such signs from the mound during Willis's return.

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