Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Dontrelle Willis in Class A

HighBeam Research

Title: Fate leads Willis full circle Standout prospect still hopes to make it to Wrigley Field - as Cubs' foe.(Sports Weekend)

Date: 6/28/2002; Publication: Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL); Author: Bush, Joe
Byline: Joe Bush Daily Herald Sports Writer
It's funny how life chases its tail.
Kane County left-hander Dontrelle Willis made a name for himself last summer with an 8-2 record and a 2.98 ERA for Boise of the short-season Class A Northwest League.
That's the second level of the Chicago Cubs organization, and Willis entered 2002 rated the Cubs' No. 21 prospect in a farm system recognized as the best in baseball.
A few days before the major-league season began, the Cubs traded Willis and fellow minor-leaguers Ryan Jorgensen and Jose Cueto, along with major-leaguer Julian Tavarez to the Florida Marlins for major-leaguers Matt Clement and Antonio Alfonseca.
In Arizona, Willis watched two Cubs minor-leaguers tearfully leave the office he was about to enter to meet with Cubs brass, and despite his numbers the year before, he unreasonably feared the worst.
"I thought they were going to say, 'You've been released,' " Willis says. "They gave me, 'I'm sorry, you've been traded.' I was like, 'Traded where?' Like, 'What did I do wrong?' That was the first thing -'What did I do wrong for you not to want me anymore?' I was disappointed, because I loved being a Cub."
Now, instead of one day making his home in the Chicagoland area, Willis is just passing through. He's 40 miles from Wrigley Field, where he may one day pitch, but with a fish on his cap, not a 'C.'
Catch him while you can, and while the parking's free, because the 20-year-old from Alameda, Calif., is having one of the finest- ever seasons for a Cougars pitcher, as well as one of the best in the minors this year.
Willis ended the first half of the season with a franchise- record 1.36 ERA, and is currently 7-2, 1.54. In that first half, the 6-foot-4, 200-pounder put together scoreless streaks of 30 1/3 and 22 innings (extended to 24 in his first start of the second half). He leads the 14-team Midwest League with 3 complete games and 2 shutouts, and is second in ERA.
The Cubs didn't offer Willis in the trade; Florida asked for him. Cougars catcher Dennis Anderson, a fourth-year pro who caught Josh Beckett in Kane County, knows why.
"Every time I catch (Willis), I expect to catch a no-hitter," says the University of Arizona product. "He's the best lefty I've ever caught."
Willis' effectiveness comes from several factors: a gangly delivery which unsettles batters, a pinpoint fastball-curveball- change-up arsenal, a hyperactive game presence, an openness to suggestion, and a thirst for knowledge.
"Before I go out on the mound, I just kneel on one knee and just pray to God if I don't win, just let me learn something," says Willis. "That's really what we're out here for, is to get better, to get to the big leagues."
Cougars pitching coach Gil Lopez knows Willis' words are truth. Willis had to refine both his curveball and changeup this season. His curveball was a bit flat, and he had little use for a changeup in his amateur days.
"He's cleaned up a lot since I first saw him," Lopez said in late May. "His curveball has gotten a lot shorter, it changes planes definitely later, and I think it's crisper. We've been in season for two months; for somebody to learn a more effective curveball and a changeup tells me the intelligence and work ethic that he has."
Willis is a different pitcher than he was last summer, and he will be different next year, too, because he's still growing. What won't change, if the Marlins can help it, is his delivery.
It draws comments from everyone who sees him pitch for the first time, or from everyone who discusses Willis' way of winging it.
"The first time I got to see him pitch was in like a simulated game," says Cougars manager Steve Phillips. "His command wasn't there, and he had a funky delivery."
"When a guy's herky-jerky like that, I know as a hitter, it's hard to pick up the ball, and that's part of his deceptiveness," Anderson says.
"With the motion that he has - it's all knee jerks and all this - there ain't a lot you can do for that except to get it as simple as possible," Lopez says.
Willis has heard it all, and none of it has been negative.
"Ever since the first time I ever tried to pitch, they were like 'Leave that alone,' " he says. "It's unorthodox, but I'll take that deception. They didn't want me to take that deception away, because that's me, that's how I get ahead."
This elbows-and-knees wind-up wouldn't be as valuable, of course, without the pitch.
Willis earned All-America status as a high-school junior, mainly with fastballs. That approach was useful last year as well, but those days are gone.Willis has evolved accordingly.
"He throws three pitches for strikes, and he works down in the zone," says Anderson. "He's got a great two-seam fastball, and a strikeout curve ball. He works ahead, get outs, and that's what keeps you around. The way he pitches, you would think he wouldn't throw so hard, but he can actually throw over 90 miles an hour. When his curveball's on, it's good, and his two-seam fastball is nasty.
"His two-seam fastball goes down and away to righties, and curveball moves down and in to righties, so you can't look for one side of the plate. He's gonna throw to both sides of the plate every single at-bat. You can't guess."
Once you meet Willis' mother, Joyce Harris, you won't have to guess where Willis gets his humility and mental toughness. Marlins farm and scouting director Jim Fleming saw Willis pitch a couple of times in high school, when Fleming was with Montreal. Fleming had no doubt that Willis would shake off the effects of a trade less than two years into his pro career.
"The one thing we did know is that he had great makeup," Fleming says. "He's a determined, happy, aggressive kid."
Harris was at Elfstrom Stadium last weekend, but the visit only made the mother and son closer on the map. There's never any space between a boy and a woman who raises him alone. Even though Willis says you can count him among the kids in the neighborhood afraid of the 6-1 Harris, she's his inspiration.
"We've been through it all," he says. "Me and her, we're tight. I love her to death."
Without his father since he was a few years old, Willis watched his mother become a full-time welder on high rises and bridges. The hours were graveyard, and the job could be deadly. Harris has fallen 26 and 16 feet while working.
"It's what you do to survive," she says.
Harris thanks a support group of family and friends in Alameda, and Willis thanks her and them for the person and, yes, the pitcher he is.
"Everyone has their sob story, but I lived it," he says. "It was tough some nights being at home by yourself, when you're young, but it made us tougher.
"We made it, so it made us tougher. I think it shows on the field when I go through adversity. I'm going to take it head on."
That attitude really would have served him well at Wrigley ...
COPYRIGHT 2002 Paddock Publications
This material is published under license from the publisher through the Gale Group, Farmington Hills, Michigan.  All inquiries regarding rights should be directed to the Gale Group.

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