|Marlins' Willis mired in worst slump of career|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 02 August 2007 13:03|
Dontrelle Willis donned his familiar No. 35 jersey. He swapped jokes with teammates and playfully whispered in slugger Miguel Cabrera's ear. To ensure a germ-free batting practice, he slapped on hand sanitizer and made even that process look like fun.
Then he glanced at the wall clock, which read 4:35 p.m., meaning he was due on the field for pregame stretching.
``Got to go,'' he said, rushing out the door.
Willis is in the worst slump of his career. He's 0-7 in his past 11 starts, and his 4.95 ERA is nearly 50 percent higher than his career figure entering the season.
His next scheduled start is against Houston on Friday.
He managed to retire slugger Barry Bonds three times Saturday, but has been so bad at times that he drew scattered boos from the NL's most apathetic fans.
Credit Willis with a relentlessly upbeat demeanor, even at a low point in his career. For the charismatic left-hander, the past year has been a roller coaster, and this season is going downhill fast.
He married in December, then was arrested later that month on a drunken-driving charge. He became a father in April and won five of his first six decisions before things began to disintegrate.
Injuries took three members of the Marlins' young rotation. A fourth, Willis' good friend Scott Olsen, struggled on the mound, scuffled with a teammate and was arrested on DUI and other charges.
It's against his nature to dwell on the negative, but the Marlins' career leader in victories acknowledges being frustrated that he's winless since May 29.
``Yeah, that's tough,'' Willis said. ``It stinks that our team is struggling. I always can deal with it better when the team is winning and we're shaking hands. When the team is struggling collectively, you definitely want to take it on your shoulders.''
That may be part of the problem: With the rotation injured, Willis has tried too hard to carry the load.
``Sometimes he takes everything on his own shoulders,'' catcher Matt Treanor said. ``He wants to be the guy.''
But the root of Willis' difficulties may run deeper, given that he has been mostly mediocre for a year and a half. He went 22-10 in 2005 and is 19-22 since.
But lately Willis is in a no-win situation. Speculation about what ails the lefty likely hurt his trade value, which may be why the cost-conscious Marlins decided his $6.45 million contract - by far the highest on the pitching staff - was worth keeping.
The non-waiver trade deadline passed Tuesday without Florida making a move.
``I'm not going to go into whether Dontrelle was on the market,'' general manager Larry Beinfest said. ``Dontrelle is a very special player - highly successful, highly marketable and very, very important to this franchise. What has been surprising is that he has struggled at times. We're so used to seeing Dontrelle excel and do well every fifth day that when he struggled, it kind of caught everybody off guard.''
Willis has been hit hard this year - opponents have a .297 batting average and .460 slugging percentage against him. His deceptive delivery still works against left-handers, and he showed against Bonds in San Francisco. But right-handed hitters are batting .328 against Willis, with a .519 slugging percentage.
Treanor said hitters from the right side have adjusted to Willis' approach, laying off the low sinker they used to chase and fighting off inside fastballs until they get something out over the plate. They're making him throw more pitches, and they're often ahead in the count.
``We went back to the basics in San Francisco - throwing a lot of fastballs, and a lot of strikes,'' Treanor said.
The result was better, even if the Marlins lost: Willis limited the Giants to one earned run in seven innings and wasn't involved in the decision.
It has been four years since Dontrelle mania came to Miami. Willis was a rookie then, and he earned the nickname D-Train as he made the ballpark buzz and helped the Marlins to an improbable World Series title.
South Florida remembers those glory days, and wherever Willis goes, strangers tell him they hope he'll stay with the Marlins. He feels the same way.
``I love it here,'' Willis said. ``I've had a great time.''