GLENDALE, Ariz. – Dontrelle Willis screamed into his glove as he walked back toward the dugout with the trainer after only seven pitches. On a cool, sunny Monday afternoon at Camelback Ranch, you wondered if the comeback was already over.
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Almost 13 years after the organization drafted him, nearly 11 years after getting traded to the Florida Marlins, Willis wore a Cubs uniform. The National League’s 2003 Rookie of the Year has a minor-league deal now and only rode over to Glendale for possible mop-up duty against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Willis warmed up for the eighth inning and got to 0-2 on Nick Evans before he felt something. The 31-year-old left-hander walked Evans – who turned out to be the winning run – and threw one more pitch to Brian Barden before manager Dale Sveum and athletic trainer Ed Halbur visited him on the mound and pulled the plug.
The Cubs described it as shoulder tightness. Willis called it a “minor setback” and wrote it off as “fatigue,” something he said he’s dealt with before in his long and winding career.
“I’m going to go back to the yard and let them give me some TLC,” Willis said after a 7-6 loss. “It’s just frustrating. I worked real hard to get back and finally get in a groove and this happens. I’ll overcome it. I’ve done it before.”
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Willis won a World Series ring with the 2003 Marlins and won 22 games two years later, becoming one of the most exciting and recognizable players in baseball. But he’s notched only four victories in the big leagues across the last five seasons, a downward spiral that he has trouble explaining.
The Detroit Tigers put Willis on the disabled list with an anxiety disorder in 2009, and he appeared to retire last summer after a dispute with the Baltimore Orioles front office.
Last week when Willis reported to Fitch Park – really where it all started for him as a teenager – he said he left the Orioles organization to deal with a family illness. Once that private matter was resolved, he decided to train this winter and attempt a comeback.
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“This is what happens when you’re not strong enough in one area,” Willis said. “If guys can overcome ACL tears, I’ll be able to overcome this.”
Willis essentially had no shot to make the team out of spring training. He said he was just having fun playing baseball again. At this point, the only good news was that he could still lift his left arm over his head.
“I’m sure it’s nothing serious,” Willis said. “I’m sure it’s just fatigue and stuff like that. God willing, I’ll spend a couple days getting that stuff worked out and get right back on the field. I don’t want to miss a lot of time. We don’t have time for that.”