LAKELAND, Fla. — Dontrelle Willis had a lot more to worry about in this outing than his pitching line.
And the line was pretty good.
Willis pitched through back spasms, was hit in the knee with a line drive and injured his thumb catching another, but worked three scoreless innings in the Detroit Tigers' 5-4 win over the Houston Astros on Thursday.
“I started to feel spasms,” Willis said after trying to snare a liner while facing the second batter. “It feels all right, but I was just trying to have some fun out there. You have to be mentally tough and have confidence in yourself. My ability is there, so just let it go.”
Willis is competing with several pitchers, including Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson, and Eddie Bonine for the final two spots in the Tigers rotation.
Willis, a former 22-game winner, has struggled since arriving in Detroit in 2008, but he has a 1.29 ERA in four appearances this spring, better than any of his competition. The Tigers made it a little easier on Willis, optioning Armando Galarraga to Triple A Toledo before the game.
Two batters after sustaining spasms, Willis dodged another liner back at the mound. It deflected off him to shortstop Adam Everett, who made the play. One pitch later, Hunter Pence hit a liner that Willis caught in self-defense. He made the play, but it injured his right thumb and Willis said he was in pain the next two innings.
It was an important outing for Willis, a former Rookie of the Year with the Florida Marlins, who went 1-4 with a 7.49 ERA last season.
“I've changed my pitching a lot this year,” Willis said. “I used to think I could strike everyone out. Now I just let them hit the ball. If I could, I'd take 27 lineouts and just get out of there.”
Tigers manager Jim Leyland said Willis was slated to go further, but once he saw the back spasms and the thumb injury that was affecting Willis, he pulled him.
“He said he was fine,” Leyland said. “I wanted to let him keep going. It puts a manager in an awkward position, so I just decided enough was enough.”
Leyland likes what he's seen of Willis this spring.
“He's getting the ball over the plate and he's getting it in play,” Leyland said. “I don't think there are any surprises with Dontrelle.”
Houston starter Felipe Paulino went three innings and allowed three runs. Reliever Brandon Lyon allowed an earned run in his only inning. Lyon, who has pitched in at least 61 games in each of the past four seasons, has struggled with shoulder surgery last month to drain a cyst in his right shoulder.
Lyon allowed a hit and walked one, but he said there was no discomfort.
“I just wanted to get out and get some innings,” Lyon said. “My adrenaline started to flow and it was good to get started. Now, my goal is to put together back-to-back outings. I'll wake up, stretch it out and keep building my arm strength.”
Brennan Boesch singled in a run in the ninth to give Detroit the win.
NOTES: The Tigers also optioned pitchers Justin Turner and Jay Sborz. Turner, 18, was the Tigers top pick in the 2009 draft. Max Scherzer and Joel Zumaya each pitched in a simulated game. Scherzer threw 60 pitches and Zumaya 36. Leyland said Zumaya pitched OK, but “he has to pitch better than OK.” Tigers reliever Bobby Seay isn't ready to start throwing because of a biceps injury. Leyland said it is doubtful that Seay will be ready for opening day Tigers reliever Zach Minor is also doubtful for the opener Leyland said. He has shoulder tenderness.
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