"Every year, I feel like I have to win a job," Willis says, referring to both his golden years in Florida and his current, slump-ridden stretch. "There's no different mentality."
There is a different vibe, however. The Willis who was selected as National League Rookie of the Year in 2003, named to two NL All-Star teams and once was one of the game's most dominant and effervescent pitchers, is gone.
In his place is an older (27) model who is attempting to keep his career from slipping away. Willis appeared in only eight games during his first season in Detroit in 2008, starting seven, and going 0-2 with a 9.38 ERA. Most baffling was his 35 walks against only 18 strikeouts in just 24 innings.
New Tigers pitching coach Rick Knapp is watching a determined Willis who has tweaked his mechanics on the advice of the club's minor-league coaches who worked with Willis in the midst of his control problems last year.
"The stuff the guys in the minor leagues worked with him on really took," Knapp says.
While Willis' delivery remains unorthodox, his current version is simplified. He doesn't twist away from the plate quite as dramatically as he once did -- "he's not as violent with his head," Knapp says -- and his leg kick is a little more deliberate and not quite as high.
"He still has his personality," Knapp says, adding that he is relieved with that.
"As a teacher, sometimes the more you get in guys' heads where his mechanics are concerned, the more chance you have to lose him," Knapp says.
So Knapp is attempting to take it slow with Willis and sprinkle in timely suggestions.
So far, it's been a good first impression on Willis.
"He's explained a lot of things, like about us playing catch properly," Willis says. "Things I had never heard before about things that are like second nature to me."
The theory being, of course, is that if you play catch properly, the odds of developing bad habits lessen. Proper arm angle, proper footwork ... it all goes hand in hand, so to speak.
Willis, who has been one of the game's hardest workers since breaking into the majors in 2003, arrived in Lakeland on Jan. 2 to begin preparing for 2009.
"He had some goals in mind, delivery-oriented, that he wanted to achieve," Knapp says. "He's looked pretty good."
Next step: When the Grapefruit League season begins on Wednesday. Baby steps for now. Willis is no longer the sure thing he once was. But it's spring, and at this time of year, there's always hope.
All set for the Oscars on Sunday night? I think I'm the only guy in America who did not like Slumdog Millionaire. Bet it wins best picture anyway, but I thought it was extremely overrated.
Based purely on personal enjoyment -- not technical filmmaking, scripts or anything else -- here's how I see the five pictures up for Best Picture this year:
1. Frost/Nixon. Frank Langella is captivating as Nixon.
2. The Reader. Kate Winslet is so good.
3. Milk. Sean Penn should win Best Actor over Mickey Rourke. Rourke (The Wrestler) was really, really good. But part of it was, and this isn't to diminish Rourke, he was playing himself. Penn was acting the whole way. And while everyone is talking about Penn and Rourke, Langella deserves a big mention here.
4. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Too long and not balanced enough. Too much time spent on Button as a young man in an old man's body, and not nearly enough on him as an old man in a young man's body. I thought the latter was when it really started to get interesting, and that only came in the final 45 or so minutes of a movie that lasted for nearly three hours.
5. Slumdog Millionaire. The uplifting ending? The Bollywood dance during the credits? Give me a break.
Likes: Toronto center fielder Travis Snider, one good-looking rookie prospect. ... That the media relations director of the Toronto Blue Jays is named Jay. Jay Stenhouse. How perfect is that? But I am glad that Detroit doesn't have a media relations director named Tiger. Tiger Britten instead of Brian? Nah. ... Pitchers throwing live batting practice. After the first couple days of spring, camps begin to get a little boring. Then, when the position players begin to arrive, the pitchers begin to throw to them, and that really puts some juice in camp. Detroit slugger Miguel Cabrera batted against Justin Verlander the other day -- I wasn't in Lakeland then, but I would have loved to have seen that one. ... The large dinosaur statues off of Interstate 4 next to the billboard that reads, "You're leaving Dinosaur World." Kitschy. ... Lemon Grass Thai Kitchen on West Kennedy Blvd. in Tampa. ... The Huevos a la Mexicana at Tapatio's in Lakeland.
Dislikes: You mean that steroid Alex Rodriguez said his cousin got over-the-counter in the Dominican Republic wasn't available by prescription, even in the D.R.? Shocking.
Sunblock Day: Cold. I mean, like 40-some degrees cold at 7 this morning. Nice, bright sun, and I know some Tigers-related folks spoke with family back home in Michigan and it was only 15 or so and snowing. That quieted the weather-related complaining in Florida very quickly.
Rock 'N' Roll Lyric of the Day:
"It was 1989, my thoughts were short my hair was long
"Caught somewhere between a boy and man
"She was seventeen and she was far from in-between
"It was summertime in Northern Michigan"
-- Kid Rock, All Summer Long