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Dan Shaughnessy

It's hard to watch

Good guy Willis can't shake control problems

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / June 5, 2009
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DETROIT - It was late yesterday afternoon and the ballpark was just about empty as ground crew members watered the infield grass. Boston's series-sweeping, 6-3 victory was in the books as well-dressed Red Sox players wheeled their carry-on luggage toward the bus that would take them to the airport for the short flight home.

At the other end of the Comerica Park underbelly, Dontrelle Willis was standing in the Tigers clubhouse, fidgeting madly, answering all of the embarrassing questions.

Willis was still in his tuxedo uniform pants. Still wearing his cleats. His day of work had ended in utter humiliation more than three hours earlier, but he wasn't hiding from anyone and he wasn't in a hurry to leave the ballpark.

"It's a matter of staying focused," he said of his third-inning implosion. "I was upset. I wanted to win the game. I just flubbed it. I was a little too tight."

It was hard to watch him answer the difficult questions, just as it was hard to watch him pitch against the Red Sox.

Willis is 27 years old, a former Rookie of the Year and two-time All Star. He went 22-10 with the Marlins in 2005. Now he can't throw the ball over the plate and he just got back from a minor league rehab assignment because of anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorder. That's not speculation. It's not a guess. It's the official club statement. This nice man with all this amazing talent (and a three-year contract worth $29 million) who can't throw strikes. And it's all in his head.

"I have to do a better job staying focused," Willis kept saying, as he rocked back and forth, hands locked behind his back. "It was totally on me today. I was jumping on myself. I got flustered at the umpire's calls. I'll work on that."

Hard to watch.

This was Willis's fifth start of the season. He got the Sox out easily in the first two innings, facing the minimum six batters.

Then came the fateful third. Willis started the inning by hitting Jacoby Ellsbury with an 0-2 pitch. That was it. He unraveled in less time than it takes to Google Steve Blass.

After hitting Ellsbury, Willis walked Julio Lugo. He didn't like some of the calls by home plate umpire Jeff Nelson.

It looked like he might get out of the inning when he fanned George Kottaras (looking), but Willis never got another batter out. As his frustration mounted, his pitches strayed higher and wider. He walked Dustin Pedroia to load the bases. He walked J.D. Drew to force home a run. Then he walked the Greek God of Walks (Kevin Youkilis) to force home another run. That was it. Willis hadn't given up a hit, but he was done.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland came out to get his pitcher while fans booed with gusto. Willis gave the ball to his manager, then sprinted off the field like Usain Bolt.

Backing his player, Leyland got into a beef with Nelson and got himself ejected.

"I was wrong," Leyland said after the game. "Some of our players were complaining about balls and strikes, but I was wrong. When you're that wild, you're not going to get pitches. [Willis] had a tough day. I have no explanation. It appeared that after he hit Ellsbury he kind of got out of whack, and that's all I have to say about that situation. Next question."

The Tigers do not know what to do with Willis. He came to them in the megatrade with the Marlins that brought Miguel Cabrera to Detroit and has been a complete bust. He was 0-2 with a 9.38 ERA last year, a season in which he hyperextended his knee and spent most of the year on the shelf or in the minors. This year, he's 1-3 with a 6.84 ERA and it's hard to imagine the Tigers sending him back to the mound.

Mike Lowell was Willis's teammate during the golden days in Florida.

"This breaks my heart," said Lowell. "You'd almost rather see him get hit. He's such a good guy. He's one of those guys who really wants all of his teammates to do well. It's not like I'm rooting for him to beat us, but you don't want to see a guy not be able to throw strikes. Hopefully, he can turn it around. He has a lot of talent and he really enjoys the game."

It's easy to see why Lowell enjoyed being Willis's teammate. On an afternoon that would have crushed the spirit of most men, Willis remained upbeat and supportive of his teammates. He stayed in the dugout after he was pulled from the game and he took the heat in front of his cubicle long after it ended.

"I feel good," he said. "It was totally on me today. If I was able to keep us in the ballgame, it might have been a different outcome. I feel like I was ready to play and the first couple of innings showed that.

"You have to play loose and I'm a loose guy. I just have to do a better job."

He took every question until there were no more questions. When the reporters peeled away, Willis walked out of the clubhouse, still in uniform.

His wife and two daughters were waiting for him at the top of a long ramp outside the clubhouse.

Willis smiled and raised his arms when he saw his family. Then he loped up the ramp, cleats clacking, and scooped up 2-year-old Adrianna Rose, hoisting her above his head. She was wearing a tiny No. 21 "Willis" jersey and she didn't seem to care that dad had a tough day at work.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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