The Free Press, Mankato, MN

May 14, 2009

Verlander and Willis

On Wednesday night, the Detroit Tigers trotted out Dontrelle Willis against the Twins; on Thursday afternoon, Justin Verlander. The Tigers have other starters, of course, but Verlander and Willis are the keys to the Tigers season.

It's only mid-May, but Verlander's game log is already fascinating. Through his first four starts, he was 0-2 with an ERA of 9.00. Since then, 3-0 in four starts with an ERA of 0.92 — and 44 strikeouts in 26.1 innings.

The no decision came Thursday, when he struck out 13 men in 6.1 innings but left after Brian Buscher and Nick Punto reached and he had thrown 122 pitches. It was an odd mixture of domination and struggle -- the Twins put somebody on base in almost every inning, but it was next to impossible to imagine them actually scoring.

Verlander has always had imposing stuff — he touches 98 mph with his fastball — but a stat record that belied the talent. Right now, he's pitching to his talent — and and could make him the best pitcher in the league.

Willis, on the other hand, made his season debut Wednesday. He's been on the disabled list with what the Tigers front office insists was "anxiety disorder," although Willis himself has raised serious doubts among outsiders about the validity of that diagnosis. Jayson Stark on Thursday wrote about some of the disabled list stints that have raised eyebrows this spring and Willis is prominent on that list.

The key thing now, of course, is that he's back on the major league roster. Off Wednesday's season debut, he's not capable of helping the Tigers. He's better than he was last season, but that's not saying much. The word on him this spring, before the DL decision, was that he couldn't throw strikes unless he made himself extremely hittable — and he struck out nobody on Wednesday, walked two and gave up eight hits in less than five innings. See the box score here.

I know: one game, small sample size. Maybe the next time out he can throw something besides the fastball for a strike; maybe next time the fastball won't be turned so readily into line drives.

The alarming thing I saw was what happened when he had to throw the ball other than pitches: An error on a pickoff throw; an awkward lob to second base after Mike Redmond's liner found his glove. I think opposing teams can bunt on him (and on Miguel Cabrera, the caboose on the loose at first base.) But if Willis doesn't show better stuff, nobody needs to bunt on him.

e-mail Edward Thoma