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Talon Marks

Cerritos College • Norwalk, Calif.

Talon Marks

Cerritos College • Norwalk, Calif.

Talon Marks

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Despite struggles, Marlins’ Willis remains positive

By Clark SpencerMcClatchy Newspapers

MIAMI– (MCT) Only once has Dontrelle Willis known a time when baseball left him feeling blue. It was October 21, 2003, after he gave up the deciding hit to Hideki Matsui of the New York Yankees in Game 3 of the World Series.

“I felt bad because Josh Beckett got the loss and he pitched great,” said Willis, who had taken over in relief for Beckett with one out in the eighth and the score knotted at 1-1. “That’s the only time in my life where I felt, `Damn, I want that back.”`

Think about that for a moment.

Willis has lost 51 games in his five seasons with the Marlins. Nine of those defeats were lodged in sequence during a just-ended tailspin that ate up June, July and half of August.

And yet none of the losses Willis has incurred since he joined the scene in 2003, or even the aggregate of a summer-long famine that has sounded alarm bells, troubled him as deeply as the lone defeat that he felt he handed to a fellow teammate.

“Do I look depressed?” Willis asked one day last week when he was asked about his mood in light of his struggles.

“No,” he continued, answering his own question. “Because if I am the worst big-leaguer, I’m still a big-leaguer.”

While there is a growing belief, supported statistically, that Willis isn’t the same pitcher who streaked into South Florida like a blazing comet in 2003 and won 22 games for the Marlins in `05, he isn’t showing any signs of despair.

He remains the clubhouse cut-up, poking fun at teammates while chastising those who leave pennies and nickels in the collection cup found in the makeshift candy store he operates with Alfredo Amezaga.

When Mike Jacobs recently ended his franchise-record long streak of 33 consecutive at-bats without a hit, the relieved first baseman joked that he could finally put away the razor blades.

“It gets depressing,” Jacobs said of extended failure in baseball.

“I mean, everything goes through your head. But with Dontrelle, he’s the same every day. He’s upbeat. He’s laughing and joking. He is that way whether he wins or gets his butt kicked. It is pretty impressive to see that.”

It is considering that the failures and losses are mounting with unnerving frequency for Willis, who takes an 8-12 record into this afternoon’s start against the San Francisco Giants.


Willis, who was the National League’s Rookie of the Year after going in 2003 and was runner-up for the Cy Young Award as the league’s best pitcher in `05, hasn’t dominated hitters the past two seasons the way he did before.

“He just doesn’t look as sharp,” said one American League scout who watches the Marlins regularly. “Once in awhile, you see flashes of the old Dontrelle, but not as often.”

The statistics seem to bear out the steady erosion.

Willis went 22-10 with a 2.63 earned run average in 2005. Opposing batters hit .243 against him. Last season, Willis started out 1-6 but recovered late to finish 12-12. But his ERA was more than a full run (3.87) higher than it was the previous season, and hitters had made inroads, batting .274.

The negative trend has continued this season. His ERA sits at 4.93 while batters are hitting a healthy .300, the 77th worst figure of the 87 major-league pitchers who have completed at least 120 innings.

And even though his 7-3 record to start the season compares favorably to his 1-9 record in the ensuing stretch, his ERA hasn’t moved significantly. He was at 4.83 on May 29 when he defeated the Chicago Cubs to improve to 7-3.

It’s not for lack of scoring support that Willis is groping for wins, either. The 6.46 runs of support the Marlins are averaging when he pitches is the third-highest figure belonging to any regular starter in the NL.

Yet Willis said he doesn’t feel any differently now than he did when he was winning (his 66 victories represent the franchise record, as does his 51 defeats).

He accurately points out that sandwiched between his breakthrough year as a rookie in 2003 and his 22-win campaign in `05 was a so-so season in 2004 when he went 10-11.

“I don’t feel like I’m a different guy,” Willis said. “I feel my strength is there, and I feel like I’m competing the same. It’s not that my effort level is any less.”

It’s been an up-and-down time for Willis off the field, too. He was charged with DUI shortly after getting married in December and witnessed the birth of his first child in May.

His durability remains one of his greatest assets. Willis has never spent a day on the disabled list, never misses a scheduled start, and is on pace to finish with at least 200 innings for the third straight season, which still makes him a precious commodity.

OTHER FACTORSNot everyone believes Willis is solely at fault for his statistical decline, either. One National League scout who watches Willis and the Marlins regularly attributes some of his struggles to factors beyond the pitcher’s control, such as the diminished defense playing behind him and questionable pitch-selection calls by his catchers.

“I think his stuff is still good,” the scout said. “His strength looks pretty good. But his delivery looks a little more out of control and he doesn’t make adjustments like he did before. There are a lot of people who don’t think Dontrelle will ever be as good as he was before, but I’m not one of them.”

However, the scout said that if the Marlins intend to trade Willis after the season, they shouldn’t expect to receive as much in return as they might have a year or two ago.

“They may not get the two top prospects from the other team like they might have before,” he said. “On the other hand, the other club might get a jewel in Dontrelle, and that’s what the Marlins better be prepared to live with, that he’s going to come back and win 22 for another team. I still think that can happen.”

Willis figures the old flame continues to burn inside him, as well, and he refuses to dwell on the negative.

“I know I’m doing everything I can to help this ballclub,” he said. “So there’s no reason to hold my head down, regardless of what’s going on. It’s not that I don’t care. I care just as much as anybody in this league.

“But I don’t dwell on stuff. That’s for the weak-minded. If you dwell on stuff, it doesn’t help for the present. If you harp on things and stay in the past, you don’t look forward for the future.”

(c) 2007, The Miami Herald.Visit The Miami Herald Web edition on the World Wide Web at http://www.herald.com/ Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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Despite struggles, Marlins’ Willis remains positive