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.