Mitchell- All Aboard
The Clippers pulled into Louisville, Kentucky as an undefeated baseball team and had a free evening to spend in a nice city. Monday, like much of the world (and assuming the rain blows out of town), it’s back to work for the defending champs. The Louisville Bats are off to a hot start of their own after taking 3 of 4 from Toledo to open the season.
Louisville looks primed for a big season with many proven offensive performers, but the most notable name on the Bats roster for the 2nd straight year is a pitcher. Last year the buzz surrounded the Cuban missile Aroldis Chapman, whose every triple-digit pitch was ogled and whose every word was translated by former Bats trainer Tomas Vera (who, by virtue of said responsibility as well as his athletic training acumen followed Chapman to the bigs- hope he remembered to send Aroldis a Christmas card). This year much attention will be paid to the exploits of the enigmatic Dontrelle Willis.
The D-Train pulled in to the Majors as a high leg-kicking, Marquee-bright-smiling, batter-baffling sensation for the Florida Marlins. He rode his funky mechanics to a Rookie of the Year Award and World Series Championship in 2003 and a 22-win season in 2005.
In 2006 things began to change. He was 12-12 with an ERA of 3.87, but a longer look at the stat line reveals the beginning of a slide. Willis struck out 160 batters, but his walks jumped from 55 in ’05 to 83 and he hit a league-worst 19 batters. The following season his ERA rose to 5.15, he hit 14 batters, threw 9 wild pitches and walked a career-high 87. That would be his final full season as a starter in the Majors.
Willis was traded along with Miguel Cabrera to the Detroit Tigers and never paid dividends for them (although Cabrera himself made it a super deal for Detroit). Willis spend more time in the minors and on the DL with injuries and anxiety disorder than he did in a Tigers uniform. In 2010, Willis was traded to Arizona and was released by the Diamondbacks shortly thereafter. Ditto the San Francisco Giants.
This year Willis signed a minor league free agent deal with the Cincinnati Reds with an invitation to Major League camp, where it was hoped he could compete for a bullpen spot. Failing to make the big club, Willis was assigned to the Bats roster where he was put into the rotation. He tossed 6 scoreless innings against the Mudhens last night, allowing 3 hits and walking just one while striking out 5 batters.
He will not pitch against the Clippers in this series, but if he stays on schedule, he should slot into the order on Wednesday, April 20th at Huntington Park. Who knows if his first start is a blip on the radar or a step on the path to getting the train back on the tracks. At his best, Dontrelle Willis was a fun pitcher to watch and someone who seemingly took that much joy in playing the game of baseball is the kind of guy you root for. If the D-Train can’t revive his career, may the Godfather can return to the WWE and bring his train back to town.