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Dontrelle Relishes Role of Under-Dog


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D-Train relishes role of underdog

Left-hander believes new challenges will motivate Marlins

By Joe Frisaro / MLB.com

 

Dontrelle Willis been on three straight winning teams and doesn't intend to get used to losing. (Dave Einsel/AP)

 

MIAMI -- Teammates come and go, and through all the transactions, Dontrelle Willis remains the same.

It will take much more than dramatically turning over the roster to drain the optimism and enthusiasm from the D-Train.

 

Willis, who turns 24 in early January, finds himself as the focal point and face of the revamped Marlins. A two-time All-Star, Willis and 22-year-old Miguel Cabrera are the two primary holdovers from Florida's 2003 World Series championship team.

 

Like the rest of the baseball world, Willis watched the Marlins streamline payroll, trading off his friends and now former teammates Juan Pierre, Carlos Delgado, Josh Beckett, Luis Castillo, Mike Lowell and Paul Lo Duca.

 

Pierre, Willis' his best friend on the team, may have been dealt to the Cubs, but no trade will break the bond they've formed. The two plan to make the Miami area their offseason home, regardless of where they are playing baseball.

 

"I'm sad because they are not only my teammates, but they're my friends," Willis said in a conversation with MLB.com during a recent autograph signing session at the Marlins en Miami Store. "You spend more time with those guys than you do your own family. You grow to love them. You know their ways and their faults, and you love both of that. It's unfortunate, but at the same time, I know it's a business. They don't want to see me stop what I'm doing. They don't want to see me not working out or being sad or feeling sorry for myself.

 

"That's one thing Juan said: 'Hey, man. Things are going to be all right. Continue what you're doing. Keep working hard. Don't let them dictate your mindset to being a different player. Don't let it cripple you.' "

 

With the payroll being drastically reduced, Willis even heard his name in trade rumors. While the organization has a standard line of saying no one is off limits, it is highly doubtful Willis will be leaving the organization anytime soon.

 

The lefty, who is coming off a 22-10 season, is eligible for arbitration for the first time. Based on the fact that he led the Major Leagues in wins in 2005, plus his strong success over three seasons, he is in line to make about $4 million.

 

"I'm not gullible," Willis said. "I'm not a front-office guy who knows a lot of things, but I'm not gullible. You see the transactions being made and all the rumors. So many guys were being rumored, so you're thinking something has got to happen.

 

"It's a business. It's definitely another aspect of the game that I'm not informed of. I've always thought, it's just all baseball, then you go home and eat, that's it. It doesn't work like that, obviously. I'm sure they don't want to do it, but something had to happen to put them in a bind to do it. It's unfortunate."

 

Since making the leap from Double-A to the big leagues in May 2003, Willis has been a two-time All-Star, the National League Rookie of the Year, won a World Series and last season finished runner-up to Chris Carpenter for the NL Cy Young Award.

 

He's been on three straight winning teams, and like his new manager, Joe Girardi, he has no intention of getting used to losing.

 

The more people say the Marlins can't, the more Willis relishes the role of underdog.

 

"I like that challenge," he said. "I think the more as a unit we hear about it, the more motivated we're going to be. We're going to go out there and play as hard-nosed baseball as we want to. I'm not saying we're going to bring home a World Series [title]; I'm not saying we're going to win many games. I know as a product, we're going to do whatever it takes to win. I guarantee that.

 

"We're going to do whatever it takes, whether it is bunting guys over, diving into dugouts or whatever. You're going to see some guys who want to be in the big leagues and want to be successful."

 

In the past, Willis had the luxury of being on a staff that included standouts like Beckett, A.J. Burnett, Carl Pavano and Brad Penny. With all those talented starters gone, Willis emerges as the ace and leader of a young staff.

 

"It won't be a hard adjustment," Willis said. "I'm going to go out there and do what I do. I'm not going to go in there all of a sudden and turn into a drill sergeant. I'm going to continue being myself, happy-go-lucky. But at the same time, when it's time to play, it's time to clock in, and I'm going to clock in. I don't want this situation to change my personality in the way I approach baseball.

 

"If everybody wants to be successful, they'll go out and get their work done and they won't need me to motivate them. We're all grown men up here. These are professionals. I have all the confidence in the world that we're going to go out there and help each other. And Girardi, he knows. He's been a leader. He's been successful, and he's not too far removed from playing. He probably could still swing a bat. Everybody has respect for him."

 

Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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