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Willis No One-Hitter Wonder

Meteoric rise of Marlin left-hander, who pitched in low level Class-A ball last summer, doesn't surprise his former coaches or teammates.

June 22, 2003|Tim Reynolds | Associated Press

MIAMI — A year ago, Dontrelle Willis was at the lowest level of organized baseball, playing for the Class-A Greensboro Bats of the South Atlantic League.

About half of his teammates from last season are still there in Greensboro. And every fifth day, they're crowding around a TV, watching Willis dominate major league hitters with virtually the same ease he blew fastballs by Class-A hopefuls.

"He was the best pitcher in our league, but we still didn't expect him to go to the big leagues this year," said Steve Phillips, Willis' manager in Greensboro. "I didn't know if he'd even go to Double-A right out of camp. This is a surprise, but not something we felt he wasn't capable of."

Wins in his last five starts for the Florida Marlins have certainly proven that Willis is capable of big-league success. His last start was the gem of his still-brief stint in the majors, a one-hitter against the New York Mets on Monday night.

The 21-year-old rookie left-hander with the unusual first name and even more unusual delivery carries a 6-1 record and 2.61 ERA into his scheduled start this weekend against Tampa Bay.

His ERA during his current stretch of five consecutive winning starts: 0.96.

Batters routinely look helpless against Willis, who has a high leg kick and mannerisms on the mound that draw comparisons to the likes of Vida Blue, Juan Marichal and Mark Fidyrich -- although Willis says he hasn't modeled his throwing style after anyone.

"It's very unorthodox, but it's comfortable for me," Willis said. "If you break myself down, I do everything I can to get myself in the direction of the plate. It works for me."

Met left fielder Cliff Floyd struck out all three times he faced Willis on Monday. Afterward, he said Willis was the best pitcher he had ever faced -- and left it to reporters' imaginations to decide if he was kidding.

"He's right up there with all the rest of the good young pitchers they have," Floyd said. "When they have everyone back and healthy, teams are going to dread coming down here."

Willis' delivery leaves hitters guessing until the last possible moment. The high leg kick and wild throwing motion -- eerily reminiscent of Blue, whom Willis had never seen, even on tape, until recently -- combine to conceal the ball longer than pitchers with a more-conventional release.

And if hitters are fortunate enough to pick up the ball quickly enough to figure out what's coming, Willis keeps them guessing on speeds. His fastball ranged from 88 mph to 95 mph against the Mets on Monday.

"It was like being back in high school and facing a crazy left-hander," Met first baseman Jason Phillips said. "Before the game, I didn't know who he was. But I do now."

It's hard to find someone in baseball today who doesn't know of Willis. He was generally considered to be an afterthought in the deal last year where the Marlins dealt pitchers Matt Clement and Antonio Alfonseca last year to the Cubs in return for Julian Tavarez and three minor leaguers, including Willis.

But from the moment he finished off the one-hitter against the Mets, Willis has been thrust -- grudgingly -- into the national spotlight.

On the mound, his mannerisms -- exaggerated arm swings, megawatt grin, penchant for high-fives -- give the impression that Willis is the life of the party. But off the field, he's certainly one of the softer-spoken players in the Florida clubhouse. He conducted interviews at his locker Tuesday while being discussed on ESPN, but didn't even look up at the screen.

"It's fine and dandy, but you can't get caught up in that. I'm having good success now, but I could easily turn around and be 6-6 and now they'll be talking bad about me," Willis said. "God forbid that happens, but you have to stay levelheaded about everything. Even when I did bad in Montreal, I still had confidence and I still believed in myself that I could do the job."

The Montreal game was May 20, when he gave up eight hits and five runs in three innings. In 37 2/3 innings since, he's yielded a total of four runs and is allowing opponents to bat just .199.

Marlin Manager Jack McKeon believes that Willis not only should be National League Rookie of the Year, but an All-Star as well.

"If he can win another game or two, how can baseball not even consider this guy for the All-Star team?" McKeon said. "He's a new, colorful performer coming into the game and we need colorful guys coming into the game. Hopefully he can win two more games before they pick it."

His Double-A manager, Tracy Woodson of the Southern League's Carolina Mudcats, is nominating Willis for the All-Star game in that league as well, although it's becoming readily apparent Willis may have seen the minors for the last time.

Willis went 4-0 in six starts at the Double-A level this season, before being called up May 9 to fill a hole in the Marlins' injury-depleted rotation. His Carolina teammates knew right away that Willis was headed to Miami.

"I didn't think he'd have the success he's had right now so fast," Woodson said. "To put up the numbers he's put up the last five games is unbelievable."

But the low numbers Willis was posting at the minor league level -- 23-5 with a 2.42 ERA in 48 appearances -- eventually became impossible for the Marlins to ignore, especially after injuries to A.J. Burnett and Josh Beckett left the team with two gaping holes in the rotation.

Willis, who makes the rookie minimum of $300,000, says he never dared to dream that the call to the majors would come so quickly.

"There's a lot of situations where a lot of people work hard and they still don't get the opportunities that they deserve," Willis said. "That's how life is and you have to accept that. When you work hard and you start to get rewarded, then you know it's a blessing."

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