Yes, I know it's very early in Spring Training. No games have been played, no live competition has been faced. And every player is going to be talked up at this point in camp. But when I see the words "pounding the strike zone" in the same sentence as Dontrelle Willis's name, I can't help but get excited.
After a lost season in which the D-Train tried to rediscover himself, mentally and physically, has he finally achieved a breakthrough? Jim Leyland seems to think so.
I thought he looked very good, very controlled. The ball had life. It's the best groove I've seen him be in."
And when Tom Gage asked for clarification, Leyland emphasized that it was the best he's seen Willis throw since coming to the Tigers.
What is he doing differently? Perhaps we won't be able to determine that until watching Willis pitch in a game, but Jason Beck described his motion as "more subdued." Maybe that means less flailing out to the side with his arms and fewer herky-jerky movements. But the signature high leg kick is still there.
Ultimately, however, perhaps it's mostly mental with Willis. And visualization the night before might be playing a big role.
"I accomplished what I thought about last night, what I wanted to do," Willis said. "I wanted to throw everything in the zone and try to make them hit everything. I feel like I was around the zone. When I did miss, I was able to make adjustments accordingly. I just want to have them hitting the ball, and with the type of defense we have, I really think that's in my favor to do that. That's all I wanted to do in this batting practice."
This might only be half the battle, though. One thing about consistently throwing pitches in the strike zone is that hitters know they'll get something to swing at. Apparently, Mike Hessman reminded Willis of that last spring by launching several of those batting practice tosses over the fence. And maybe that got into the D-Train's head. But he seems to have learned from that.
"I got some payback on somebody," Willis said. "He knows who he is. I got who I wanted to get. Somebody has hit about five home runs in these BPs. He's hit some missiles off me -- to left, center and right, convincingly.
"I'm not going to say who Mike Hessman is, but I finally got my man back for that. He took it easy on me. But I got my payback."
Hopefully, that payback continues against opposing hitters in actual games.