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Dontrelle Willis: pitcher of the year.

Marlins left-hander led the majors with 22 victories, five shutouts and placed third with a 2.63 ERA while collecting 24 hits as a batter

DONTRELLE WILLIS DEFIES conventional wisdom in every way possible.

He bats seventh in the Florida Marlins batting order and slides head first into bases. And he's a pitcher, of all things. When he's on the mound, his arms fly one way, his legs the other, his head skyward, but out of the strange hodgepodge comes a fastball approaching triple digits that has baffled National League batters for most of three seasons now.

He's 23 years old, and mature far beyond his years, a calming, yet excitable personality in a Marlins clubhouse that was testy at best during a disappointing 2005 season when underachievers would be the kindest way to describe them. His smile and attitude are infectious, a personality that lights up even the gloomiest of rooms.

On a team that staggered to the finish with an 83-79 record with the playoffs in their grasp, Willis, a lefty, was the bright spot. His 22-10 record and 2.63 earned run average garnered him the Baseball Digest Pitcher of the Year Award, knocking off worthy contenders such as Chris Carpenter of the Cardinals, Roger Clemens of the Astros, and Bartolo Colon of the Angels. He struck out 170 batters with five shutouts and seven complete games.

While the Marlins tried to stay in the wild card race through the dog days of August, Willis won eight of nine while fellow Marlins starters A.J. Burner and Josh Beckett struggled. Willis went at least seven innings in each game during that stretch and actually became one of the Marlins best hitters when he was in the lineup.

He showed his versatility in a 4-2 win on September 2 over the New York Mets when he sacrificed his body, going head first into the plate for a key run in the win. While former Marlins manager Jack McKeon almost swallowed his cigar and the rest of the Marlins cringed, Willis said it was just the way he plays the game.

He got the idea two weeks earlier in another win over Cincinnati. In that game, Willis hit a dribbler to third base and couldn't make up his mind to go head or feet first. After taking an awkward spill, Willis said he was going all-out from that point on, no matter what conventional wisdom said.

"They gave me grief, but I'll do whatever it takes to get us into October," Willis said. "I watched Rickey Henderson when I was a kid. That's how he did it."

He almost got the Marlins into October all by himself. With his fastball and wicked breaking stuff, Willis got off to a strong start for the third straight season. In his rookie and sophomore seasons, Willis faded down the stretch. In 2003, he wasn't expected to even make the Marlins and started the season in Double A Carolina. A month later, he was with the big team and was the darling of the baseball world two months later. His late summer fade did nothing to tarnish his reputation and he showed his flare for the dramatic with a 3-for-3 night at bat in his start in the Division Series against the Giants when he also tripled and scored a run.

In 2004, Willis started the season 3-0 without allowing an earned run before he came back to earth, finishing with a teamhigh 10 wins. He was also 3-for-8 as a pinch hitter, the most hits by a pitcher as pinch hitter in 17 years.

In 2005, Willis never faded. He went into spring training committed to going all-out for the entire six-month campaign. His cocky personality came through all year, but it was toned down a bit.

"I don't expect anything up here," Willis said during spring training. "I just want to be in a uniform and healthy all year. People talk about different goals, but you can't achieve them unless you are ready. It is 'go time' now. I want my 35 starts a season, so I have to work hard."

The hard work paid off with an 11-2 start to the '05 season with a 2.06 earned run average in early June. No one was talking 30 wins, a feat which hasn't been accomplished since Denny McLain did it for the Tigers in 1968, but he heard the hype, especially around All-Star time when he made his second appearance in three years. The hype, the pressure, the focus on Willis during the Marlins abysmal start never wore him down, and he was the rock the team needed when it made a second half push that had the Marlins on the brink of first place in the wild card race throughout much of August and September.

"I don't mind the hype," Willis said. "I would rather the team be successful. Last year, we were pretty much in the playoff hunt all year and people were saying I wasn't pitching as well. I was still enjoying things because the team was winning."

During his brief stay in the majors, Willis has learned he can't get by with his speed and abifity. He's learning the mental game one pitch at a time. He's always had the ability. He was selected by the Cubs in the eighth round of the 2000 draft, but after making a solid impression for two years in the Cubs system, he was traded prior to Opening Day in 2002 along with Julian Tavarez, Jose Cueto and Ryan Jorgenson. The Cubs got Matt Clement and Antonio Alfonseca.

It was once he made it to Miami, though, that Willis became a pitcher instead of a thrower.

"Now he recognizes things like bat speeds and what hitters are trying to do," Marlins pitching coach Mark Wiley said in June. "He's probably way ahead of his time now for his age. Usually the maturing process takes a lot longer than it has for him. I know he has a good time doing his job and that's important, win or lose."

Former manager Jack McKeon had been in professional baseball since 1949 and a manager since 1955. He's seen it all. McKeon stepped down as Florida's manager after the 2005 season, but knew he had something special when he saw Willis with the whirling dervish motion to go with his pitches.

"Why he wins is because he is so good at so many things," McKeon said. "He fields his position. He bunts. He hits. He has a good pickoff move. He knows how to help himself. He always makes a good pitch when he has to, and that's the mark of a good pitcher. It's Dontrelle."

Wiley agreed: "He has a terrific character and great personal pride," Wiley said. "He is totally unselfish. He is in a highprofile sport and he's performing very well at it. He's taken his game one pitch at a time and he has the mentality to make quality pitches almost whenever he has to. He helps himself with the bat and does what it takes to help this team win ball games."

Willis describes himself as a 'showand-go' guy, but there's more to him than meets the eye, a sensitive side he showed when he talked about winning the World Series after the 2003 season.

"I'll never forget being in that locker room," Willis said with a gleam of wonderment in his eyes. "That was a feeling no compliment could compare to. It wasn't like Christmas, or any Christmas I've ever had. It was so fun to see everyone hugging each other and telling them they loved each other."

His face was lit like a Christmas tree while describing that moment, something so unexpected, just like the success he's had at such a young age. It's a success that has defied all conventional wisdom and if the results remain the same, that's just fine for Dontrelle Willis.

RELATED ARTICLE: 2005 Pitcher of the Year ratings.

1. Dontrelle WILLIS, Marlins--The flamboyant left-hander led all big league pitchers with 22 wins, seven complete games and five shutouts while registering the third best ERA in the majors with a 2.63 mark.

2. Chris CARPENTER, Cardinals--Carpenter went 21-5 with a 2.83 ERA, four shutouts, seven complete games and 213 strikeouts. He also led all major league pitchers in quality starts--going seven or more innings while allowing three or fewer earned runs with 23.

3. Johan SANTANA, Twins--Despite pitching for an injury-plagued Minnesota club that finished last among American League teams in runs scored and second to last in team batting average (.259), Santana was a rock on the mound with a 16-7 mark, 2.87 ERA, 238 strikeouts and 21 quality starts. With better run support, he easily would have been a 20-game winner.

4. Roy OSWALT, Astros--0swalt is the only pitcher to win 20 games in each of the last two seasons and his 20-12 mark helped the Astros to come from 15 games below .500 early in the season to win the N.L. wild card berth. His MVP performance in the NLCS helped Houston win its first pennant.

5. Bartolo COLON, Angels--The right-hander was the workhorse of the Angels staff that helped Los Angeles to the A.L West Division title. Colon led the Al. with 21 wins and worked 222 innings with a 3.48 ERA and 17 quality starts. His late-season injury in the piayoffs diminished the Angels' chances of returning to the World Series, but without Colon's consistent outings during the regular season, the club never would have made the postseason.

6. Roger CLEMENS, Astros--At 43, he still dominated by pacing all big league hurlers with a 1.87 ERA over 211 innings. He totaled 21 quality starts and with more run support (the Astros were shut out in nine of his 32 starts) he would have won 20 games instead of posting a modest 13-8 mark.

7. Mariano RIVERA, Yankees--Surrounded by a Yankee staff that was riddled with injuries and ineffectiveness, Rivera continued his dominance as a closer by saving 43 games with a 1.38 ERA. Alter blowing his first two save opportunities of the year, he saved 30 consecutive and 43 of the next 45 chances to help push the Yankees to their tenth straight A.L. East Division title.

8. Pedro Martinez, Mets--A strong performance from Martinez helped the Mets compete for a division title and wild card berth for most of the year as the right-hander went 15-8 with a 2.82 ERA and 208 strikeouts in 217 innings.

9. Mark BUEHRLE, White Sox--The left-hander finished with a 16-8 record, 3.12 ERA and 236 innings and was the catalyst of an outstanding pitching staff for the world champion White Sox.

10. Jon GARLAND, White Sox--The hard-throwing sinkerball specialist matured as a starter and became an All-Star caliber pitcher with an 18-10 won-lost record, three shutouts and a 3.50 ERA in 221 innings.

11. Andy PETTITTE, Astros--In an injury interrupted 2004 season in which he posted a 6-4 record, Pettitte rebounded in 2005 to help Houston to a World Series appearance with a 17-9 mark, 2.39 ERA and 222 innings in 33 starts.

12. Carlos ZAMBRANO, Cubs--The big right-hander has emerged as the top pitcher on Cubs staff that features Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Greg Maddux. Zambrano is a power pitcher who put up quality numbers (14-6, 3.26, 223 IP, 202 strikeouts along with a .300 BA as a hitter) for a disappointing club.

13. Jake PEAVY, Padres Peavy ted the N.L. with 216 strikeouts to go with his 13-7 mark and 2.88 ERA for the N.L. West Division champion Padres.

14. Chad CORDERO, Nationals--Due to his dominance out of the bullpen, Cordero helped the Nationals achieve an 81-victory campaign. The right-handed relief specialist led the majors with 47 saves while registering a 1.82 ERA.

15. Cliff LEE, Indians--Lees 18-5 won-lost record was the best winning percentage (.783) in the American League. He became the Tribe's stopper and helped them to a 93-69 record.


Pitcher of Year Winners

Year   Pitcher Team                                     Throws

1994   Greg MADDUX        Atlanta Braves                 Right
       (16-6, 1.56 ERA, 3 shutouts, 156 Ks, 31 walks)
1995   Greg MADDUX        Atlanta Braves                 Right
       (19-2, 1.63 ERA, 3 shutouts, 181 Ks, 23 walks)
1996   John SMOLTZ        Atlanta Braves                 Right
       (24-8, 2.94 ERA, 2 shutouts, 276 Ks, 55 walks)
1997   Roger CLEMENS      Toronto Blue Jays              Right
       (21-7, 2.05 ERA, 3 shutouts, 292 Ks, 68 walks)
1995   Kevin BROWN        San Diego Padres               Right
       (18-7, 2.38 ERA, 3 shutouts, 257 Ks, 49 walks)
1999   Pedro MARTINEZ     Boston Red Sox                 Right
       (23-4, 2.07 ERA, 1 shutout, 313 Ks, 37 walks)
2000   Pedro MARTINEZ     Boston Red Sox                 Right
       (18-6, 1.74 ERA, 4 shutouts, 284 Ks, 32 walks)
2001   Curt SCHILLING     Arizona Diamondbacks           Right
       (22-6, 2.98 ERA, 1 shutout, 293 Ks, 39 walks)
2002   Randy JOHNSON      Arizona Diamondbacks            Left
       (24-5, 2.32 ERA, 4 shutouts, 334 Ks, 71 walks
2003   Roy HALLADAY       Toronto Blue Jays              Right
       (22-7, 3.25 ERA, 2 shutouts, 204 Ks, 32 walks)
2004   Curt SCHILLING     Boston Red Sox                 Right
       (21-6, 3.26 ERA, 226.2 IP, 203 Ks. 35 walks)
2005   Dontrelle WILLIS   Florida Marlins                 Left
       (22-10, 2.63 ERA, 5 shutouts, 170 Ks, 55 walks
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Author:Berlinicke, Jeff
Publication:Baseball Digest
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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