Tigers roll in Willis’ return

He walked the first batter on four pitches.

Would Dontrelle Willis’ 10-month struggle to recover from social
anxiety and chronic wildness blow up in his face the first time
out?

In a word, no. The former two-time National League All-Star
walked two batters in the first inning but none over the next five
as the Detroit Tigers beat the Kansas City Royals and its shaky
bullpen 7-3 Thursday, giving hope that Willis’ troubles may finally
be a thing of the past.

“It was a gritty ballgame early,” said Willis, who had
appeared in just 15 games since signing a three-year contract with
Detroit in 2008. “They had me on the ropes. But with the
encouragement of my team I was able to battle, make some good
pitches and get us back in the dugout.”

Miguel Cabrera drove homered and drove in four runs for
Detroit.

In his previous regular-season start June 14, Willis walked a
career-high eight batters in just 3 2-3 innings. Then he went on
the disabled list the rest of the season with social anxiety
disorder.

If the right-hander can regain the form that made him a star
with the Florida Marlins, the Tigers will seem almost certain to
contend in the AL Central.

“Early on, I’ve got to force contact,” he said. “I think
everybody’s going to have the same approach on me. I think they’re
going to wait me out to see if I’m throwing the ball over the
plate.”

Without a doubt, that was Kansas City’s strategy.

“He wasn’t quite as wild as we expected him to be or as he’s
been in some of his past,” said manager Trey Hillman. “He threw
enough strikes for us to have to be ready.”

Cabrera hit a three-run home run on an 0-2 count off Luis
Mendoza (0-1) in the eighth, putting the Tigers on top 4-2. He
added an RBI single in the three-run ninth as the Royals’ bullpen
blew a save for the third straight game.

While losing two of three games in this season-opening series,
Royals starters Zack Greinke, Luke Hochevar and Brian Bannister
gave up only two earned runs.

“It’s just a matter of making pitches on quality hitters,”
said Hillman. “When you leave pitches out over the plate
especially to guys like Cabrera, Magglio (Ordonez) and (Carlos)
Guillen, they are going to get you.”

Willis allowed two runs on seven hits, with two walks and four
strikeouts in six innings.

“He’s got to build on this one,” said manager Jim Leyland.
“This one was OK. It wasn’t great, but it was OK. I’ve kind of
stayed away from making any fuss one way or the other. Treat him
the way you do everybody else. If you do the job, you pitch. I’m
excited for him. I’m happy for him.

“He’s got every teammate pulling as hard as you could pull for
everybody. It’s great to see.”

Cabrera went 4 for 5 with a three-run homer and an RBI single.
In 41 games against the Royals, he’s hitting .363 with 13 home runs
and 39 RBIs.

“This is a good park to hit, this big park,” said Cabrera, who
hit the tying home run on Wednesday night. “When you see a big
park, you try to use the gaps. That’s an advantage.”

Eddie Bonine (1-0) pitched an inning of relief, giving up three
hits. He escaped unscathed when Alberto Callaspo capped a dreadful
day at the plate by grounding out with the bases loaded.

After Dusty Hughes walked Johnny Damon leading off the Detroit
eighth, Luis Mendoza (0-1) came in and surrendered an infield
single to Ordonez, who had a solo home run off starter Brian
Bannister in the sixth.

Ramon Colon forced in the final run in the ninth when he hit
Ryan Raburn with the bases loaded.

“Today was just one of those days,” Colon said. “You can’t
even explain that. We’re going to keep on fighting.”

Scott Podsednik went 4 for 5 for the Royals while Callaspo had a
day to forget.

The Royals had two runners on base each of the first three times
he came to bat but he grounded into two double plays and struck
out. Then with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth, he
grounded weakly to Cabrera at first.

NOTES: The Tigers open their home season on Friday against the
Cleveland Indians. … Damon’s bat went flying past first base when
he swung at a pitch in the eighth. … Cabrera’s home run with two
outs in the ninth Wednesday night sent the game into extra
innings.