Seeing Willis get jazzed is music to fans, but sad tune for foes like Nats

Tiant throwback is sight for fans, but not hitters

Wild, Wild (nl) East

Dispatches from a division where every team is in the playoff race.

September 08, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The buzz started three days ago - Washington fans saying they couldn't wait to see him pitch, out-of-town writers asking Florida manager Jack McKeon to dredge up comparisons from the days of baseball past.

More than the effervescent smile, the funky delivery or all those wins at such a young age, the buzz sets Dontrelle Willis apart. More than anyone in the airtight National League East, where all five teams are playoff contenders, Dontrelle Willis is an event.

"He provides a lot of energy for everybody, the fans, too," McKeon said before Willis' 20th victory last night, a 12-1 Marlins win over the Nationals in a matchup of wild-card contenders. "And that probably applies here as much as at home."

"Hell, I even get excited and jump up and down in the dugout," said the 74-year-old manager.

At 6 feet 4 and 239 pounds, Willis looks like a classic mound intimidator, but his style comes more from the Luis Tiant school. He turns his back on the hitter, brings his right knee almost to his chin and then slings the ball from a variety of hard-to-see points. He'll take a little off when the hitter expects a fastball, then bust a hard one, wasting few pitches along the way.

If Willis, 23, gets fans and teammates jazzed, he creates a fatalistic air for opponents.

Nationals manager Frank Robinson, for example, said he was giving rookie Ryan Zimmerman his first career start yesterday because the team couldn't do much worse against Willis.

"Why not?" he said. "We don't do anything with this guy anyway."

Zimmerman made his manager look wise, lining a double for his team's first hit against the lefty. But his teammates produced tappers and pop-outs against Willis (six innings, one run) as the Marlins solved a succession of Nationals pitchers.

Willis shut out the Nationals in his first start of the season and beat them again 10 days later.

"His windup and his motion, maybe, make him tough to pick up," Robinson said. "He's learned to change speeds. That makes him even more effective."

Opposing batters agree that their troubles begin with Willis' windup.

"Where the ball comes from, it's just different than with any other left-handed pitcher," said the Nationals' Brad Wilkerson.

Fellow pitchers admire the havoc Willis creates.

"His ball looks like it's coming at you, but really it ends up on the outside corner," said Nationals ace John Patterson. "He gets a lot of weak swings."

Willis' numbers back up such impressions. He entered last night's game second in the National League in wins, fifth in ERA, sixth in innings pitched and second in complete games. He may stand behind Chris Carpenter and Roger Clemens in the Cy Young race, but after a slight sophomore slump, he has established himself as the ace of the pitching-rich Marlins.

Willis had a stretch of bad starts in late June and July but had allowed two earned runs or fewer in seven straight outings entering last night. He'd been at his best against divisional and wild-card rivals, going 9-3 with a 2.20 ERA against such teams.

Willis can hit too. He's kept his average over .200 throughout his career, and the Marlins have used him as a pinch hitter.

"He hits the ball hard most of the time," McKeon said, suggesting that his ace could have been a major league first baseman (he doubled in the fourth and singled in the fifth last night).

Robinson sounded none too confident that his team's fortunes against Willis would improve.

"It has to change sooner or later," he said. "It has to."

The 70-year-old Hall of Famer then paused. "If you believe that," he said, "I have some waterfront property in Arizona I want to sell you."

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