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Insider on Dontrelle

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Willis totally dedicated to succeedBy Jerry Crasnick

ESPN Insider



Dontrelle Willis and Juan Pierre, friends and teammates in Florida, share a strong work ethic and a disdain for shortcuts. In spring training of 2003, when Pierre was entering his first season with the Marlins and Willis was a minor-leaguer enjoying his first invite to big-league camp, they set their alarm clocks to 6:45 each morning and headed to the park together to work up a sweat well before 10 o'clock stretch.


Willis watched how Pierre went about his business ? the long hours, attentiveness to detail and daily fitness regimen that might grind other players to dust ? and wondered how it might translate to him on a year-round basis. So before the 2004 season ended, he asked Pierre if he could be his offseason training buddy.


"I don't know if you want to do it,'' Pierre said warily.


"I don't know if I want to do it either,'' Willis said. "But I figure if I can do an eighth of what you do, I'll be in good shape.''


Pierre eventually relented and invited Willis to take part in a winter of boot camp-caliber fun at the training facility run by former NFL receiver Cris Carter in Boca Raton, Fla. Willis lifted weights, took part in agility drills and did lots of other neat things ? like having a trainer attach bands to his legs and pull from behind to provide resistance as he ran on a treadmill.


"There's some pretty intense stuff,'' Willis said. "I've been sore in places I never thought I could be sore.''


Six weeks and seven starts into the 2005 season, Dontrelle Willis is enjoying the emotional and statistical benefits of his labor. It's National League hitters who are suffering.


At 7-0 with a 1.08 ERA, Willis enters Tuesday night's start at Dodger Stadium as the second pitcher in 15 years to win his first seven starts while posting an ERA below 1.10. The first: Randy Johnson, who achieved the feat for the 2000 Arizona Diamondbacks on his way to a 19-7 record and an NL Cy Young Award.


For Marlins pitching coach Mark Wiley, the quintessential Dontrelle moment came in the eighth inning of a win over Houston last week. Willis had thrown 107 pitches and was clinging to a 2-1 lead over Roy Oswalt when the Astros put runners on first and second. Willis dug deep and struck out Mike Lamb on three straight 94-mph fastballs to end the threat. Then he pumped his fist and spun in triumph.


"He has no fear,'' Wiley said. "Some guys say, 'I don't want be in that situation.' I think that's the stuff Dontrelle lives for.''


Opponents have seen a more focused and efficient Willis this year. He's throwing an average of 13.6 pitches per inning, third among NL starters behind Atlanta's Mike Hampton and Philadelphia's Jon Lieber. That's a considerable improvement over last season, when he averaged 15.9 pitches per inning.


He has also been adept at keeping the ball at the knees or below. Last year Willis ranked 26th in the National League with 1.28 ground balls for every fly ball. His current ratio of 2.43 is fourth in the league behind Brandon Webb, Derek Lowe and Mark Mulder.


The Dominator

How Dontrelle Willis has fared in his first seven starts this season:

Date Opp. IP R SO Dec.

4/8 Was. 9.0 0 3 Win

4/13 Phi. 9.0 0 7 Win

4/18 Was. 6.0 3 4 Win

4/23 Cin. 6.0 2 7 Win

4/30 Phi. 5.0 1 4 Win

5/6 Col. 7.0 0 10 Win

5/11 Hou. 8.0 1 5 Win


That's a positive trend for two reasons: 1) Willis allowed only two homers in his first 50 innings, after giving up 20 homers in 197 innings last season; and 2) with Mike Lowell at third base, Alex Gonzalez at shortstop and Luis Castillo at second, the Florida infield is adept at turning ground balls into outs.


Willis' killer offseason regimen is only one factor in his fast start. He has benefited from the input of Wiley and new teammate Al Leiter, who signed with the Marlins as a free agent over the winter. Even though Leiter and Willis are 16 years apart, they are fellow lefties who throw from a similar arm slot. Therein lies the basis for a bond.


"We talk all the time on the bench about how guys react to us,'' Willis said. "If we're throwing in the same series I might say, 'Hey, Al, this guy is doing this on this count,' or, 'He's doing this on the inside pitch.' Al is like a professor, but he's still trying to learn new things. You have a lot of respect for a guy like that.''


Wiley, who replaced Wayne Rosenthal as Florida's pitching coach in November, called Willis during the offseason and made it clear that he didn't care about arm slots or overhauling Willis' trademark funky delivery. He just wanted to make sure that whatever Willis did, he did consistently.


Maybe it's arriving at the park at the same time each day, or adopting a consistent pregame routine or, most importantly, focusing on certain keys to get comfortable before each pitch. "It's kind of like [what] a putter does in golf,'' Wiley said.


Willis' mediocre 2004 season amplified the hazards of getting out of sync. Wiley watched tapes and noticed that on certain occasions ? say, when Willis was throwing an off-speed breaking ball or trying to put a hitter away with two strikes ? he might get overanxious, speed up his delivery and lose his rhythm.


Coach and player talked extensively about the importance of maintaining a rhythm to give Willis something to fall back on during the tough times. In spring training Wiley would stand behind Willis during bullpen sessions and quietly remind him to be consistent with his landing foot or his arm angle when he released the ball. "When he consistently beats it into your head, it becomes second nature,'' Willis said.


Wiley noticed that when Willis goes into his windup, he habitually drops his head for an instant, only to raise it and immediately refocus on the target. That's the kind of thing you can't teach ? and don't trifle with.


"Dontrelle has a tremendous ability to visualize and still command his body,'' Wiley said. "He also has a great sense of what the hitter is in rhythm for. Some pitchers have an innate ability to do that and others never learn. I think he's always had a sense for it.''


? I don't know if I ever had a pitcher who had such fun playing the game. He loves winning. It's what he's all about. ?

? Marlins pitching coach Mark Wiley on Dontrelle Willis


Willis throws three kinds of fastballs ? the high-octane 94-mph gas, a sinking two-seamer in the 89-90 range and a more pronounced sinker that comes in at 84-85. He complements them with a slurve that he can backdoor to righties and an occasional changeup at 70 mph or so to keep hitters off balance.


He also has a knack for adjusting, from pitch to pitch and from one game to the next. In a 9-0 win over Washington on April 8, Willis pounded the corners with fastballs early in the count. Ten days later he varied his approach, throwing more breaking balls and changeups, and beat the Nationals 9-4.


"He got us out on a couple of 2-1 counts with changeups when everybody was expecting a fastball,'' said Nationals outfielder Brad Wilkerson. "In the past, it seemed like he was just trying to throw the fastball in there for a strike. Now he has the confidence to throw any pitch at any time.''


While Willis is less wide-eyed than the kid who captivated America with his crooked cap and outgoing nature as the 2003 NL Rookie of the Year, he still plays the game with a zeal that is palpable and contagious. Wiley compares him with the star Little Leaguer who loves baseball so much that you have to drag him off the field.


"I don't know if I ever had a pitcher who had such fun playing the game,'' Wiley said. "He loves winning. It's what he's all about.''


He loves it so much, he's making it a habit.




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Willis and Pierre are just awesome, I love them. It's nice to see how Pierre's hard work has encouraged Willis to work harder.


Willis is such a happy and emotional guy. He loves playing, especially winning. Wiley is really lucky to have a very coachable pitcher in Willis, and Willis is lucky to have such a great pitching coach in Wiley.


Nothing can stop Willis and his pride. Even when things are going bad he still wears a smile. I love his positive attitude, and that's why I'd still like him as a pitcher even if he wasn't so successful.

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