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Dontrelle’s Leavin’ On A Jet Train

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Willis pitches against Kansas City / Getty ImagesThis was sad. Not entirely shocking … maybe the equivalent of static electricity, but it was a depressing end to a story we all wanted to see include a happy ending.

On a busy sports Saturday, under the radar hovered the story of Detroit Tigers pitcher Dontrelle Willis becoming designated for assignment, making it all but certain that his three-year, $29 million tenure with the Detroit Tigers was taken off life support.

The 2003 National League Rookie of the Year won 22 games in 2005. Since 2008 — when he was traded along with Miguel Cabrera from the Florida Marlins for a flavor variety pack of prospects — he made 22 starts. He won two games in three years. He threw more high and outside fastballs than I'd like to remember, and it was just time for him to move on.

You knew it was a tough decision when Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski made a public statement about the roster move that night. Bringing the D-Train to The D and forking over a massive extension rests on Dombo's head, so this was a necessary mea culpa.

Last month the Tigers game I attended was one of Willis' two wins in three years. He threw six shutout innings against the Minnesota Twins, and many of us believed he'd turned a corner. But it just wasn't the case. This past Friday he only allowed three runs in six innings against the Oakland A's, but he was throwing several pitches off the plate that only Eric Gregg would consider strikes.

This year, Willis looked different in the dugout. He was confident. Content. He would also induce timely double plays to escape mayhem in bases-loaded innings. That's no way to routinely pitch — especially for a team that's trying to stay on pace with the Twins.

But maybe there is a slapdash happy ending to this story. Willis was DFA'd to make room for Max Scherzer, another struggling young'un. He was sent down to Toledo to try and lower that May ERA of 13.19. Two starts later in Triple-A, he came back up, took Willis' spot in the rotation, and struck out 14 batters — not just a personal best, but the most anyone's thrown so far this year.

If he has a good head on his shoulders, this is not the end of Dontrelle Willis' story. He did some charitable things off the field in Detroit, so there's no reason to believe that baseball failure automatically portends personal failure. (Hey, Cecil Fielder disproved the inverse.) Maybe he'll find another team this year. Or next year. Perhaps he can do the Rick Ankiel thing and reinvent himself as an outfielder. Or maybe it's something else. Who knows.

If Tigers fans, underneath the knee-jerk pessimism and snap defeatist attitude, are as sincere as I believe them to be, they'll all wish him the best of luck. Unless he joins the Twins and repeatedly shuts down the Tigers lineup.

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