“You’re excused if you hold your breath tonight while watching the game on the tube. It’s OK to wring your hands and even say a little prayer.”

 

Tonight a young man will step onto the mound at the Metrodome in Minneapolis and it’ll be amazing if he doesn’t sink into the dirt from the weight on his shoulders.

Dontrelle Willis isn’t just starting a baseball game tonight.

He’s trying to exorcise demons.

Willis hasn’t won a big league game since 2007. But it’s not just that he hasn’t won.

It’s how he hasn’t won.

To say simply that Willis has gone winless in nearly two years is to say that the Titanic didn’t reach its destination, and leaving it at that.

Willis’s career is at stake. Right now. It starts tonight, in Minnesota.

It’ll soon be known whether Willis has recovered sufficiently from his anxiety disorder and is on the road to being Dontrelle Willis again, or is another of baseball’s cautionary tales.

Every pitch that misses the strike zone, every batter who trots to first base after taking ball four, will come attached with excess baggage.

It’s hard to pitch when your life depends on it.

And Willis’s baseball life depends on it.

Last year, his first in Detroit, Willis lost it. Completely.

His numbers were gruesome (24 IP, 35 walks, 9.38 ERA, 0-2 record). And it was all between the ears.

Steve Blass Syndrome, named after the beleaguered and practically tragic figure Blass, who infamously lost it in 1973 with the Pirates, just two years removed from being a World Series hero.

Willis had it, many folks said. Or something eerily similar to it.

I recall a lefty stopper named Kevin Saucier. He owned Detroit in 1981, nicknamed “Hot Sauce.” He was the bullpen version of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych: after every game saved, Hot Sauce would leap around the field, pounding his glove, embracing his teammates as they ran off the field.

Then, in 1982, Saucier retired. In the middle of the season.

“I’m afraid I’m going to kill someone out there,” Hot Sauce said, fearing he was losing control–both on the mound and in his head.

The Tigers have played it straight with Willis. They’ve nurtured him, supported him, taken him through all the proper channels for someone in his situation.

He just completed a minor league rehab assignment and threw the ball fairly well, by all accounts.

Now, it’s to the point where further minor league starts are deemed unnecessary.

Dontrelle Willis can only slay his dragons, can only exorcise the demons, by proving that he can throw strikes and retire hitters from a big league mound.

With all due respect to the AAA hitters he’s been facing while performing for the Toledo Mud Hens.

This might be one of the most anticipated starts by a Tigers pitcher since Fidrych’s much-ballyhooed return from his knee injury in May 1977.

You’re excused if you hold your breath tonight while watching the game on the tube. It’s OK to wring your hands and even say a little prayer.

This isn’t about the Tigers beating the Twins tonight. Screw that.

This is about whether a 27-year-old pitcher will continue to be a pitcher, or should be looking into life after baseball.

And Twins fans, by the way, ought to be pulling for Willis, too. Shame on them if they put winning this game ahead of his mental well-being.

For the record, Willis says he’s ready. Says whatever was messing with his head is all gone.

He’s all better now. So he says.

If he can get out of the fifth inning with minimal damage, then the Tigers and everyone who calls themselves a fan of the team ought to be ecstatic with that.

If he gets lit up, walks a ton of batters and is driven to the showers before the third inning, it’s not good. Not good at all.

Dontrelle Willis’s mental comeback isn’t necessarily riding on this one start in Minnesota tonight.

It’ll just feel like it.

For us, and for him.

God bless him.

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