PCL baseball • Hoping for return to majors, left-hander is solid in SLC debut.
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On Aug. 16, 2003, Dontrelle Willis pitched six innings and gave up three runs in a no-decision against the San Diego Padres as a member of the Florida Marlins, the team that would go on to win the World Series. Willis was a 21-year-old phenom who would later be voted the National League Rookie of the Year.
Fast-forward 10 years and two days, and the two-time All-Star left-hander again pitched six innings in a no-decision, this time giving up two runs to the Las Vegas 51's as a member of the Salt Lake Bees.
The eventual 6-3 loss to Las Vegas was Willis' second start overall and first at home for Salt Lake, and marks another milestone on his long journey back to the major leagues, where he last pitched in 2011 with the Cincinnati Reds.
"To me it wasn't a long road, it's just baseball. As long as my arm is attached I'm going to continue to have fun and compete," Willis said after Sunday's loss. "I'm actually really proud of myself, it's actually more gratifying getting called up to the big leagues, because a lot of times when guys are out of the game, they're out of the game [permanently]. So to be able to work hard down here, stay humble and grind, you can tell that we're hungry, we're competing and we're having fun."
Willis pitched well over six innings, allowing two runs and three hits while walking three and striking out three. Las Vegas starter Jacob deGrom was even better, carrying a perfect game into the fifth inning. John Church earned the win for Las Vegas while Jason Urqiudez (1-1) took the loss.
Twice Willis walked a batter and then gave up an RBI double, but he was otherwise effective.
"It was a battle. I didn't feel totally great," Willis said. "I was able to settle down and battle back against a good lineup and keep us in it."
The man known as "D-Train" is often remembered for that 2003 Rookie of the Year season when he started 27 games and finished 14-6 with a 3.30 ERA and 142 strikeouts.
His best season was 2005 when he finished second in NL Cy Young voting and was arguably the best pitcher in baseball. He led the Majors with 22 wins, seven complete games and five shutouts. He was in the top 10 of most other pitching statistics, including winning percentage, innings pitched and ERA.
Willis was just 23 years old and seemed destined to be a superstar, but 2005 would be his peak. He went 22-27 in 2006-2007 with the Marlins, after which he was traded to the Detroit Tigers, where he started just 22 games over the next three seasons. In 2010 the Tigers traded him to the Arizona Diamondbacks, and a month later Arizona released him.
Since then he has signed with and been released by five clubs, most recently the Chicago Cubs after 2013 spring training. He signed with the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League, where he was 5-4 with a 2.56 ERA in 14 starts.
Signed by the Angels to a minor league contract last week, the 31-year-old is staying positive about his career and his chances to pitch in the majors again, but he's not worrying about whether he will be called up anytime soon.
"That's not my concern. I don't wear khakis. That's the front office, that's their job," Willis said. "I feel great, I'm just having fun. … I imagine everyone's goal is to play with the Angels. I hope. I don't want to play with anybody who doesn't want to play in the big leagues."
Storylines 51's 6, Bees 3
R In his first home start for Salt Lake, Dontrelle Willis holds Las Vegas to two runs on three hits over six innings.
• Las Vegas rallies for four runs in the eighth inning, capped by Francisco Pena's two-run double.• Three 51's pitchers combine to throw a 3-hitter.