He gave up one run on a wild pitch and another on a throwing error, generosity the Nationals needed, given that they went 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position and left 14 men on in all.
The Nationals managed to scratch out a 5-2 victory over the lackluster Willis and the Florida Marlins on Wednesday night, thanks in part to Nationals starter Ramon Ortiz working in and out of trouble into the seventh inning.
"It was bad luck, and a combination of a lot of things," said Willis, who's 7-9 a year after finishing second in the NL Cy Young Award voting. "But even with me struggling, we still had a chance to win the game."
That's true: Ortiz (9-9) had one 1-2-3 inning, yet somehow managed to be tagged for just one earned run despite eight hits, a wild pitch and a hit batter. The Marlins were about as efficient in the clutch as the Nationals, going 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position and leaving 10 men aboard.
Ortiz was effective with his slider and by working the inside part of the plate -- all in a game called by a catcher making his major league debut, Brandon Harper, who doubled in the second inning in his first at-bat.
"It's always good to get that first one out of the way -- help me relax a little bit," said Harper, finally in the majors after more than 2,000 at-bats in the minors since 1997.
"Thank goodness for Escobar -- at least we got two in from third base," Washington manager Frank Robinson said.
Washington could have scored plenty more, when you consider that Willis allowed eight hits and five walks, hit a batter and threw two wild pitches. And there's this: Marlins relievers tacked on six more walks. And this: The Nationals put their first batter on base in every inning.
"People will say, 'You won the ballgame, what are you crying about?' But you have to understand that if you take advantage of the opportunities you have, it's an easier game for you," Robinson said. "The way it was, we were fighting for our lives at the end of the ballgame."
Willis was charged with four runs -- three earned -- as he labored through 114 pitches over 5 1/3 innings. Both wild pitches came in the first inning, and one allowed Alfonso Soriano to trot home. Willis gave up another run in the first on a fielder's choice groundout, one in the third on an Escobar flyout, and one in the fifth after loading the bases with two walks and a single. That last run came when Willis' throw on a comebacker pulled catcher Miguel Olivo off the plate.
"He got in trouble. He wasn't hitting his spots," said Washington's Felipe Lopez, whose single in the sixth was it for Willis.
A batter earlier, manager Joe Girardi and a trainer visited Willis on the mound because the left-hander indicated he was having trouble squeezing his pitching hand. But Willis said he was OK, and stayed in briefly.
"He hasn't been able to sustain it this year," Girardi said. "I know he's frustrated with it. Sometimes things just don't go your way. You're the same guy, you prepare the same way every day, and sometimes you just don't find that rhythm."
Willis is 1-2 with a 4.59 ERA in six starts since the All-Star break.
Robinson's assessment: "He hasn't been as good or as sharp this year as he has in the past."
While the Marlins have a rotation filled out by promising rookies, the Nationals have been pressed to find five healthy starters. Now, with staff ace Livan Hernandez gone via trade, and No. 2 starter John Patterson out injured, Ortiz has become the De facto anchor.
He leads the Nationals in wins, and is 3-0 with a 3.96 ERA in his last four starts. When he walked off the field to a standing ovation with two on in the seventh, the slender right-hander tipped his cap.
"Right now, he's the best pitcher we have on the team," Soriano said. "I hope he continues pitching like that."
- Nationals LHP Micah Bowie left after facing three batters in the seventh with a mild strain in his upper back, and Robinson said he's probably going to need a few days.
- Washington closer Chad Cordero pitched the ninth for his 20th save.