FORT MILL, S.C. - Dontrelle Willis got a step closer to returning to the Detroit Tigers, and the Toledo Mud Hens got a late home run and a comeback win last night.
The Mud Hens' 6-5 victory over the Charlotte Knights was satisfying in a lot of respects, as Willis in his second major league rehab start, threw with a lot of energy and mobility in a 52/3-inning stint that was better than the pitching line indicated.
Willis wasn't around for the big finish, which Dane Sardinha provided with a leadoff home run in the ninth to break a 5-5 tie. But he gave a positive review for his night's work.
"It felt good and I felt productive," said Willis, who gave up seven hits and five runs, striking out and walking three. "I just want to be helpful to this team while I'm here and get back to the Tigers as soon as possible. This was another good warmup."
Charlotte's Brad Eldred and Royce Huffman hit back-to-back solo home runs to start the second inning. Eldred's was a towering drive to right field, but Huffman's, a liner to left, just cleared the wall in cozy Knights Stadium's 347-foot left field power alley.
"The first one [Eldred] just muscled out and I left a pitch up [in the strike zone] on the second one," Willis said of the two home runs. "I just tried to concentrate on making good pitches and attacking the strike zone tonight."
Willis retired 11 of the next 14 batters before running into trouble in the sixth. Thomas Collaro hit a two-run double to highlight a three-run inning, all after two out, for Charlotte. It gave the Knights a 5-3 lead at the time.
Willis was replaced by Preston Larrison (2-1), who gave up one hit in 21/3 innings to get the win.
Willis, who has been on Detroit's disabled list for a month with a hyperextended right knee, displayed good mobility on a couple of pickoff moves that resulted in Charlotte runners being erased from the basepaths.
"I've been working with [Detroit pitcher] Kenny Rogers on that and move and it was a good time to try it out," Willis said. Rogers is the major leagues' all-time career pickoff leader.
Willis was scheduled to either throw six innings or 85 pitches, whichever came first. He didn't hit either benchmark, throwing 79 pitches (46 for strikes).
"But I thought it was a relatively successful night," he said. "I got through it without any complications, and I'll be ready to go again."
That will probably happen Saturday at Columbus, and it could be Willis' final rehab start.
"It looked like it was pretty good through about 70 pitches tonight," Mud Hens' manager Larry Parrish said. "I thought he threw the ball well. He just ran out of gas a little at the end."
Jeff Larish, Mike Hessman and Mike Hollimon each homered for Toledo and Timo Perez hit a game-tying double with two out in the eighth.
"We got some big hits, no doubt about it," Parrish said.