GOODYEAR—Dontrelle Willis is 29 years old. Somehow, he seems so much older.
It seems like a lifetime ago that Willis burst onto the scene as a rookie pitching sensation with the Marlins. He was the left-hander with the megawatt smile, oodles of charisma and a funky delivery that featured a Juan Marichal-type high leg kick. The D-Train, as he was dubbed, helped the Marlins win an improbable World Series championship in 2003.
Two years later, Willis led the National League with 22 wins. Sabermetrics confirmed that Willis' high win total wasn't a fluke as he finished fourth in the league with a 2.93 fair run averaged.
It also seems like a lifetime ago since Willis was an effective pitcher. He was traded from the Marlins to the Tigers along with Miguel Cabrera at the winter meetings following the 2007 season and his career has been in a downward spiral ever since.
Willis was limited to 123 1/3 innings over the past three seasons because of what was officially been termed "anxiety disorder." In more honest terms, Willis' problem was that he forgot how to throw strikes as he walked 119 batters, an average of 8.7 per nine innings in that span.
However, Willis is quietly becoming one of the heartwarming stories of spring training. He is the Reds' camp on a minor-league contract and throwing strikes.
Willis has pitched five scoreless innings and walked only one of the 19 batters he faced in Cactus League play. It's a small sample size, to be sure, but Willis' performance is encouraging. He has pitched so well that he is beginning to put himself in position to win a second left-handed spot in the Reds' bullpen alongside flame-throwing rookie Aroldis Chapman.
"He's been the biggest surprise of our camp," Reds manager Dusty Baker said Thursday before his team lost to the Giants 7-0 at Goodyear Ballpark. "We didn't know what we were going to get when we signed him but we felt he was worth taking a look. He's pitched great so far."
Any anxiety Willis felt in the past is gone. He came to camp with a carefree attitude along with revamped delivery that has eliminated the trademark leg kick.
"I've decided that if my career ends then so be it," Willis said. "I love baseball and I've had a great time and accomplished a lot in my career. At the same time, I'm not letting baseball define me. If I'm able to keep playing, I'd be very happy. Yet if it comes to end, I'll be at peace with that and move on with a lot of fond memories to look back upon."
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