Dontrelle to Face a Tougher Test

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When the Texas Rangers last came to Detroit, they were in first place in the AL West, and had yet to taste defeat in the 2009 season. How’d that work out for them? A three game sweep at the hands of the Tigers lead many to expect the same kind of season that has been the Rangers calling card over the past several years; a ton of hitting, but no pitching. The Tigers outscored Texas 25-9 in those three games to jump-start Detroit to a 20-16 record so far. Once again tonight, Texas begins a three game set in Detroit as a first place team, this time backed by a seven game winning streak. But the Tigers have not lost to Texas at Comerica Park since September 11, 2007, having ripped off nine straight against them since. Dontrelle Willis will try to do his part to continue the recent dominance when he makes his 2009 home debut tonight, opposite Brandon McCarthy.

The D-Train pitched well enough against the Twins last week to earn himself a second look in the rotation. While he was frequently unable to put Twins’ hitters away, he had little trouble getting ahead of them. Willis tossed 4.2 innings, yielding 8 hits, 2 walks, and 4 earned runs in his first start, but considering where he has come from, I thought it was a pretty good effort, and a fine place to start. He battled a tight strike zone, both of his walks came on 3-2 counts and could have been easily called third strikes. He battled his way out of jams by getting double play balls, and he kept his poise after a long homerun by Justin Morneau. And he kept battling through two terrible defensive plays by Miguel Cabrera. In a word, it was encouraging. Dontrelle will try to build on that effort tonight against a team that he had marginal success against last year. In a September start versus Texas, Willis held the Rangers to just 2 hits over five innings, but he walked 4 and allowed 3 runs, throwing only 47 of his 89 pitches for strikes. Remarkably, it was one of his better appearances as Tiger to date.

The Tigers have had strong pitching for most of the season, and for them to continue to contend in the Central, they cannot afford a let down. Willis is capable of becoming a solid starting pitcher again, and with the recent struggles of Armando Galarraga, the team needs a solid effort from Willis tonight and every fifth day thereafter. Facing McCarthy, the offense should be able to put up some runs, even minus the suddenly hot Magglio Ordonez, and hopefully Willis can find a groove and improve upon his last outing. First game jitters should be out of the way for Willis, this is the start that should show everyone what kind of pitcher he can be. It’s a big test, against a very good and balanced lineup, but it’s a test he can pass, I think.

I have tried to remain as level-headed about Willis as I could, but Tiger-fan or not, if you can’t root for this guy to get back to good, who can you root for?