DETROIT - The Detroit Tigers desperately needed a starter to give their beat-up bullpen a break.
Dontrelle Willis delivered.
Willis pitched four-hit ball and got to the seventh inning in perhaps his best performance with the Tigers, helping them beat the Minnesota Twins 3-0 yesterday to win the three-game series.
"This was a big series, but the next series is going to be big for us," he said. "I think we beat a good team two out of three, so it's good. But we're going to be hungry for more - another good ballclub is coming in - and that's how we're going to win the division, I think."
Detroit had a great chance to win a division title last year for the first time since 1987, but it lost the 163rd game to the Twins and became the first team to miss out on the playoffs after having a three-game lead with four games left.
There's no redemption for the Tigers in beating Minnesota in an April series, but they got something more important: Willis took another step toward showing he's not washed up.
Willis (1-1) struck out six - his highest total since 2007 when he was with the Florida Marlins - and walked two in his first win in 11-plus months and just his second in three seasons with the Tigers.
He was 1-6 the last two years in Detroit, averaging more than a walk per inning, and went on the disabled list twice because the team claimed he had an anxiety disorder.
Willis, who says he doesn't think he ever had an anxiety disorder, seems to have his mind and body in the right place.
"I'm having fun," he said.
After Willis walked Jason Kubel to lead off the seventh, Joel Zumaya struck out two in two perfect innings - matching his career high - and Jose Valverde pitched a hitless ninth for his seventh save in eight chances. They combined to pitch the first shutout for Detroit (13-10) this season.
The AL Central-leading Twins (14-8) set a franchise record by winning their first six series before losing the last two games of the three-game set in Detroit.
"This is disappointing because we wasted a great pitching performance by Carl Pavano," Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire said.
Pavano (3-2) gave up three runs - two earned - on seven hits and two walks over eight innings despite a stiff neck.
"It was a little sore this morning and then I aggravated it in the fourth or fifth inning, but I just had to pitch through it," he said. "I dealt with this a couple times last year, and it doesn't keep me from pitching, but I'd like to get rid of it."
Johnny Damon's sacrifice fly in the first put the Tigers ahead 1-0, Austin Jackson's RBI single in the fifth made it 2-0 and Don Kelly's two-out single in the eighth gave them a three-run cushion.
The patient Twins forced Willis to throw strikes, and he didn't blame them for looking more than swinging.
"I would too," Willis said.
Gardenhire said Willis was good, but the Twins left him off the hook at times.
"He got the ball over when he needed it, but we were too impatient when we got ahead in the count," Gardenhire said. "We had a couple chances to let him get himself into trouble, and we didn't take them."
NOTES: Detroit OF Magglio Ordonez singled in the fourth inning, becoming the sixth Venezuelan and 260th player in the majors with 2,000 hits. ... Minnesota and Detroit are the only AL Central teams with winning records.