Willis (21-9 through Sunday) had won six consecutive starts since Aug. 12, two of them complete games. Working under old-school manager Jack McKeon, the Marlins' 23-year-old southpaw has produced throwback numbers, joining fellow Cy Young Award candidate Chris Carpenter of the Cardinals (21-4) as the fourth and fifth pitchers since the White Sox' Jack McDowell in 1993 to amass at least 21 wins and seven complete games in the same season. Willis also runs the bases with headlong zest and hits with such gusto--decimals aside, his batting average (.250) is even better than his ERA (2.48)--that McKeon batted him eighth on Saturday, ahead of rookie shortstop Robert Andino. "He's such a good hitter," McKeon says of Willis, "I think he could be a first baseman in the majors if he weren't such a good pitcher."
Says Marlins infielder Mike Mordecai, "On the days he pitches we're an American League team because he's as good as a DH. Dontrelle brings a Little League mentality to the major leagues. You know when you were a little kid and you couldn't wait to play the games? That's the way Dontrelle is. Every day he walks around here with a smile on his face. I don't think he wants to leave the clubhouse at night. It's like this is his bedroom, with the posters on the wall. That's how much fun he has just being here. He gives baseball everything he has. It's a pleasure to watch. As a player there are few guys you'd pay to see, but Dontrelle is one of them."
Though not an especially hard thrower--he topped out at 92 mph last Saturday-- Willis confounds hitters with the uncanny movement of both his pitches and his body, which seems equipped with more well-lubricated hinges than the standard-issue human form. Hat slightly askew, brim flat and low in a somewhat comic camouflage, Willis sets his feet on the third base side of the pitching rubber, then throws himself into a series of jerks and feints as if a bug had just crawled down the back of his shirt. He yanks his bent right knee toward his chest, raises the ball over his head in his glove and, with elbows splayed, shows his backside to the batter. (There is less of that rear end these days, thanks to an upgraded off-season conditioning program.) "It's all asses and elbows coming at you," Astros catcher Brad Ausmus says.
As he begins to untangle himself in sections, like a chaise lounge unfolding, Willis steps toward the lefthanded batter's box and, with orthopedists cringing, wickedly slings the ball across his body. The baseball arrives from this diversionary windup as an afterthought, like the little puff of smoke left by a speeding cartoon car. It's gone before you know it.
"It's hard to pick up the ball because of his delivery," Ausmus says. "Plus, what really makes him tough is, he has such great late movement on the ball. You see it coming and think you have it measured, but then it moves off the center of the bat and he gets a ground ball to shortstop. That helps him get a lot of quick outs. He can pitch a lot of innings because he gets a lot of one- and two-pitch outs."
"There's no reason to change him," McKeon says. "The way the game is now, they might as well hire police officers to scout. They can point their [radar] guns and say, 'Ninety-five? He can pitch.' But give me the guys who know how to win. Give me [Greg] Maddux. Give me Dontrelle. I don't need a damn gun."
On Saturday, Willis had thrown 110 pitches and retired the previous 12 batters easily when he sprinted to the mound for the ninth, the crowd of 27,203 rising to its feet and applauding because the game remained in his hands. Rollins, a .229 career batter against his friend and with his hitting streak in peril, pounded a fastball into the hardpan in front of home plate. The ball bounced high over third baseman Mike Lowell and into leftfield for a single. Willis then put the tying run on base with his first walk, to Jason Michaels.
Bobby Abreu followed with what should have been a double-play grounder, but second baseman Luis Castillo played it timidly and the ball flicked off his glove for an error, sending Rollins home and Willis to the bench. Seven more batters would reach base (10 in all) before the Florida bullpen recorded an out.
As the last remnants of a pitching duel were eradicated--the inspired Padilla had yielded only an unearned run in seven innings-- Rollins caught the gaze, from one dugout to the other, of a brooding Willis. Rollins raised a clenched fist to his friend in a silent salute to his effort. It was no solace to Willis, who said after the game, "I feel like I let my team down today."
In the other clubhouse Rollins wore a smile that was only slightly smaller than the gigantic bejeweled jr that hung from his neck in possible violation of various outdoor signage ordinances. Wagner pointed toward the Marlins' clubhouse and said, "Do we have the talent those guys have? No way. But we're playing with intensity, and at the same time we're relaxed. That's how we've played the whole second half. That's a big step for this team."