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Dontrelle Willis: Simply Electric

Hanleylicious

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Under normal circumstances, Jack McKeon would have lifted rookie pitcher Dontrelle Willis for a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning of a 1-0 game. Monday, the Marlins manager couldn't bring himself to do it, couldn't disappoint Willis or a crowd of 10,000 at Pro Player Stadium, couldn't kill the pulse that quickened with every New York Mets hitter Willis retired.

''I managed with my heart instead of my head,'' McKeon admitted afterward. ``I would have been run out of town if I had taken him out of that game. I was praying in the dugout. I said a few rosaries.''

Willis answered McKeon's prayers by turning in one of the most dominating performances in franchise history, a one-hit, complete-game shutout in what was only his seventh major-league game.

Remember Fernando mania -- as in, former Dodger Fernando Valenzuela -- in 1981? Bring on Dontrelle mania.

Willis has become an instant cult hero in South Florida and did nothing to damage that reputation Monday. In winning his fifth straight decision, the 21-year-old left-hander improved his record to 6-1 and left bewildered Mets hitters shaking their heads. Mets outfielder and former Marlin Cliff Floyd struck out all three times. Willis allowed only two baserunners all game -- a first-inning walk to Ty Wigginton and a fourth-inning single to left by Wigginton that bounced through the hole between third base and short.

''He's all arms and legs, but with a head on his shoulder,'' the awed Floyd told New York reporters in describing Willis' unorthodox delivery. ``He looks very confident.''

The complete-game one-hitter was the fifth thrown by a Marlin (there have been three no-hitters thrown by Marlins pitchers), and it was the third 1-0 complete-game victory in team history. To think, Willis didn't join the team until May 9, when he was called up from Double A Carolina.

''There's no question that this guy is going to be here for a long time,'' McKeon said of Willis, whom he's pushing for the National League All-Star team. ``This is what baseball needs. This is what the All-Star Game needs -- some colorful new performer.''

Willis entered the game having won each of his past four decisions, ones in which he had been charged with only four earned runs over 28 2/3 innings.

It hardly seemed possible that he could improve on those performances.

But Monday he did.

After Wigginton's single, not another Met reached base against Willis the rest of the game. He retired the final 17 Mets hitters.

Yet Willis' pitching opponent, veteran Tom Glavine, 37, was nearly his equal. Glavine yielded only four hits over innings, but one of those was Iv?n Rodr?guez's solo home run in the fourth. It proved to be the difference in the outcome.

''It was fun, absolutely, just to face Glavine,'' said Willis, who threw eight strikeouts. ``Then to go toe-to-toe with him, that's something you dream of. And to beat him, that's unbelievable.''

Said McKeon: ``He [Willis] wasn't in an easy position there, what with a 1-0 game. The pressure can mount on a young player, and he stayed right with it.''

But Willis nearly didn't get to finish what he started. The Marlins were clinging to their 1-0 lead in the seventh when Juan Encarnaci?n and Derrek Lee led off the inning with back-to-back singles. Normally, McKeon said, he would have ordered a sacrifice bunt from Alex Gonz?lez to advance the two baserunners into scoring position, then pinch-hit for Willis. Instead, he made the decision to leave Willis in the game and had Gonz?lez hit away.

''There's a lot of times you second-guess yourself,'' McKeon said. ``But I thought the kid deserved to stay in.''

Even though the Marlins failed to produce an insurance run in the seventh, Willis made the score hold up.

''He's something special,'' said Marlins center fielder Juan Pierre.

``It's pretty amazing. He has no fear out there. It was one of those nights where his stuff was very electric.''

Willis still said he's amazed that he's even pitching in the majors. But he knows now other teams will start scouting him with a little extra scrutiny.

''You can go 6-1, but turn around quick and be 6-6,'' Willis said. ``Now, there's a big target on my back.''
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