Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The D-Train Chugs Into The Neighborhood

I grew up going to International League (AAA) baseball games at the Lucas County Recreation Center in Maumee, OH. The Rec Center was the home of the Toledo Mud Hens. Somewhere around here there are dozens of autographs from players like Dooley Womack, Joe Foy, Mike Hegan and the like. To get to the field from the clubhouse the players had to walk in an open area where a bunch of Little Leaguers could hound them for autographs as they went to take BP and catch fungoes. It was great fun. I guess I've seen dozens of Mud Hens games over the years including a couple at their beautiful new ballpark in downtown Toledo.
Whenever the 'Hens come south to play the Charlotte Knights we take in a few games. The Knights' home field is actually in Fort Mill, South Carolina and the time from my porch rocker (AKA: office) to a seat right behind the Mud Hens' dugout is about 15-20 minutes. Last night was to be a bit special since Dontrelle Willis was going to start for Toledo. The D-Train is rehabbing from a hyperextended right knee suffered just 5 innings into his Detroit Tigers' career. Willis burst on the baseball scene in 2003 as a Rookie of the Year 21 year-old pitcher on the World Champion Florida Marlins. He compiled a 3.80 ERA over his five years in Florida but last year was not up to his standards due to control issues. Dontrelle came over to the Tigers in the biggest blockbuster deal of this past off season; he and Miggy Cabrera for 4 pitching prospect (including Andrew Miller), a backup catcher, and the young phenom outfielder Cam Maybin. Two of the pitchers are currently playing for the Marlins and Mike Rabelo is their starting catcher. Meanwhile, back in Detroit, Dontrelle is on the DL and Cabrera is not yet showing off his prodigious talents. These are the times that try Tigers' fans' souls. So it wasn't surprising that the Detroit media would look at Dontrelle's pitching line (7 h's, 5ER's in 5.2 innings) from last night's game and think he didn't do well at all. But, I was there, and I beg to differ. It was actually a pretty good rehab start.
The Tigers wanted two main questions answered last night regarding Willis. First, is the knee sound and is he healthy? Compounding this concern was that he "tweaked" the injured knee in his first rehab start ten days ago. Secondly, the Tigers would be interested in his control and how he worked through jams. Was he behind in the count all night? That sort of thing. Well, as to health, Dontrelle looked very mobile all evening. During warm ups and long toss prior to the game he seemed mildly concerned with a soft brace or wrap on the right knee-- the item with the white writing on it in the above picture. In the first inning he seemed to stretch and jump after pitches as though he was having some trouble getting loose, but he went through the Knights three up and three down in the first and never seemed concerned after that with his knee. In fact, in the 5th and 6th innings he picked off base runners and showed good agility. The 6th inning pick off was at 2nd base, which took a nice step-off, spin, and throw. He passed the health issue easily. As for control, he never really struggled to make his pitches. He walked three while throwing 46 strikes and 33 balls. He was not overpowering (struck out 3), but he pitched the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th and into the 6th inning with good command. His fastball showed upper 80's on the stadium gun.
In the second inning Dontrelle gave up back-to-back HR's. The first one, to right by Brad Eldred, is a home run in any park in MLB. The second was a double off the left center wall at Comerica-- maybe a single with Granderson out there. So, the second was not a big concern. And, notably, it didn't derail him as he worked out of it with no further damage. Where he got into real trouble was the sixth, even though he picked a man off second in that frame. Dontrelle started to get smacked around pretty well once he passed the 70 pitch count and left after 5 and two thirds innings and 79 pitches. It was a good start for a rehab-- not great-- but hardly a disaster. My guess is that he'll have one more rehab start and then, barring a big setback, he'll be in the rotation in Detroit. Let's face it, the other four guys in the rotation he left usually can't get past 75 pitches these days either. Willis wasn't supposed to come back as the ace of the staff since he went on the DL as the 5th starter. It's only because the Tigers are so desperate now for effective starters that people are hoping the D-Train is The Super Chief.
The Mud Hens, by the way, won the game on a 9th inning HR by catcher Dane Sardinha. Holliman, Hessman, and Larish also homered. Timo Perez had a key 8th inning double. Preston Larrison looked very good in two and a third innings of relief. Another thing though about Dontrelle that wouldn't make the box score; he made himself part of the team. He was out there high fivin' Larish after the homer and thanking guys for good plays in the field. And when Blaine Neal recorded the final out for the save, Dontrelle was out there in the middle of the celebration jumpin' and hip-bumpin' with the rest of the team. He didn't appear to be "big leaguin' " the minor league players one bit. Even in a rehab start in front of just 2,900 fans (and 84 hostile drunken frat boys) he showed that youthful enthusiasm and love of the game that draws fans to Dontrelle Willis. Good luck, Dontrelle. Thanks for stoppin' by.