Now sophomore, Willis looks to remain at head of the class


JUPITER, Fla. - Dontrelle Willis faced the following situation during Saturday's Grapefruit League finale against the Mets: Mike Cameron at the plate with a full count and a man on.

Faced with a similar scenario against any number of equally adept hitters last season, Willis had one option.

"I'm just throwing a fastball," he said.

That was the rookie's solution to being behind in the count and reluctant to put another runner on with no outs. On the cusp of his second season, Willis would handle things differently.

Cameron got a 3-2 breaking ball and hit a routine grounder to Alex Gonzalez, who initiated the 6-4-3 double play.

"Before, not that I don't have confidence, but I didn't have confidence in other pitches I could throw in the strike zone," said Willis, who will make his 2004 debut in Thursday's series finale against the Expos at Pro Player Stadium. "Being able to throw that in games against [Mets' regulars], you can't do anything but get better."

For Willis, building on his 14-6 National League Rookie of the Year campaign started with sharpening his offspeed stuff. He concluded spring training trusting his breaking ball enough to throw it on fastball counts, the way he did to Cameron.

The hope is those kinds of adjustments will propel Willis to another double-digit victory total. Rookie year success may be the toughest kind to duplicate.

Since 1998, 15 starting pitchers have finished among the top five in Rookie of the Year balloting. Five spent time on the disabled list during their sophomore campaigns, including 1998 National League winner Kerry Wood, who missed the '99 season after reconstructive elbow surgery. Two others (Bud Smith, Rick Ankiel) split time between the majors and minors.

Of the eight who remained in a big-league rotation during their entire second season, four posted losing records. Jason Jennings and Damian Moss each logged earned run averages higher than 5.00.

"The second year is always tough, but if you make adjustments you'll do well," Mets left fielder Cliff Floyd said. "If not, you'll find yourself battling. [Willis] is a good person so hopefully good things will happen to him. ... He has to stop throwing the ball right down the middle. What I mean by that is he's challenging a lot of guys. He has to be smarter and understand guys know that now and expect to get challenged. If he can offset that he'll be fine."

Willis, 22, is looking for his second season to be more closely associated with those of Roy Oswalt and Tim Hudson, who won 19 and 20 games, respectively, as sophomores.

Boding well for Willis' chances of bettering his 2003 numbers (14-6, 3.30) is his desire to grow from mistakes. Willis was most effective early, going 9-1 with a 2.08 ERA in his 13 appearances and garnering an All-Star selection.

After the break, he dropped to 5-5 with a 4.60 ERA.

"Looking back on the season, I wouldn't change one thing, the success, the struggles," Willis said. "I got to see all aspects of everything. There was one point I was throwing lights out and at one point I couldn't get anybody out. It's not a good situation to be in when you're going through it, but now that you look back you have to grow up, be a man, and take responsibility.

"I've always been a guy that tries to take everything in perspective and try to make it as a positive, even when I do well or if I do bad," Willis said.

"You can learn from that and try to get better. ... I'm just relaxed. Now it's a sense of going out there and playing your game. You can't be upset if you play your game opposed to being a little tentative because you don't know your surroundings or you're not familiar with the situation."

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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