Willis a force on mound, at bat

Marlins pitcher sees end of his hit streak, but keeps ERA perfect, moves to 3-0

Baseball

April 21, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - Dontrelle Willis is having the time of his life, and who can blame him?

Certainly not the defending World Series champion Florida Marlins, who have ridden his talented left arm - and surprising bat - into first place in the National League East.

Certainly not their fans, who embraced him when he showed up at Pro Player Stadium last summer and played a major role in the team's amazing midseason turnaround.

Everyone seems to agree that the animated 22-year-old left-hander has every right to flash that brilliant smile after getting off to another dynamic start in his second major league season. Including the young man himself.

"It's all fun," Willis said.

Sure looks like it.

He arrived at Citizens Bank Park for last night's game against the Philadelphia Phillies with a 0.00 ERA and a 1.000 batting average. He hadn't given up a run in 20 2/3 regular-season innings, dating to the end of the 2003 season, and was working on a string of seven straight hits - 10 if you count his 3-for-3 performance against the San Francisco Giants in the 2003 National League Division Series.

"I don't know if you can get any better," said manager Jack McKeon. "He certainly has looked like Lou Gehrig at the plate."

Both streaks ended during the Marlins' 3-1 victory over the Phillies, but Willis (3-0) still put on a show for the hostile crowd of 36,479. His hit streak was broken when Phillies starter Vicente Padilla blew a full-count fastball past him in the second inning. His scoreless innings string ended at 24 1/3 , only because fellow Marlins phenom Miguel Cabrera misplayed a routine fly ball to right field in the fourth.

No matter. Willis held the Phillies to one unearned run on four hits over 6 2/3 innings to maintain his perfect ERA, and his 0-for-3 performance at the plate left him with a .667 average - still the talk of the clubhouse.

"You just sit there and shake your head," said teammate Jeff Conine. "They're throwing everything at him ... sliders, curveballs, changeups. He takes the ones out of the strike zone without even offering at them. I wish I looked that comfortable at the plate."

The Marlins, who defeated the Phillies for the fourth straight time this year and for the 16th time in the past 18 games, gladly would settle for seeing Willis look this comfortable on the mound.

"I want to go out there and do anything I can to win ballgames," he said. "Today wasn't my day at the plate, so I had to go out and pitch."

Willis won the National League Rookie of the Year Award largely on the strength of his first-half performance in 2003. He struggled through the late summer before playing a significant role in the Marlins' October surprise, leaving some room to wonder which Willis would return in 2004.

McKeon says he was never concerned.

"Everybody wanted to lock in on something, like he was tired or this or that, but he was just a little bit different pitcher," McKeon said. "When he was successful, he was throwing strikes, then he started walking guys and getting beat. He's back to throwing strikes."

Willis pitched into the eighth inning in his first start of the season and combined with the hot Marlins bullpen on a 3-0 shutout against the Montreal Expos. Eight days later, he pitched five scoreless innings in another combined shutout - again against the Expos.

Of course, the stripped-down Expos have been in a major offensive funk, but Willis and the rest of the Marlins' impressive young starters probably had a lot to do with putting them there.

If only it stopped there. Willis would be the Marlins' wunderkind on the strength of his lively left arm alone, but he opened the season as the hottest hitter in the Florida lineup.

He entered last night's game with six hits in six 2004 at-bats, going 3-for-3 in each of his starts against the Expos with a home run and three RBIs. He also had a hit in his final regular-season at-bat of last year, a walk and the three postseason hits.

The seven straight regular-season hits were the second-most by a pitcher in the last 30 years. If Willis had delivered all 10 in the regular season, he would have tied the National League record for consecutive hits - held by several players and equaled most recently by Bip Roberts in 1992.

Double threat

Florida's Dontrelle Willis is beating teams with his arm and his bat:

Pitch. W-L ERA IP H ER BB SO

3-0 0.00 19 1/3 13 0 5 15

Batt. AB R H HR RBI Avg.

9 3 6 1 3 .667

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