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David Brown

D-Train back in service — for one night, anyway

Big League Stew

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After a series of delays and derailments over the past four seasons, the D-Train chugged along fine Tuesday night, appearing to be back on track.

In his first sound performance since the end of the 2007 season, Dontrelle Willis(notes) allowed one hit and two walks in 6-1/3 shutout innings against the mighty(ish) Texas Rangers. He retired 17 straight at one point in the Tigers' 4-0 victory.

Willis' velocity wasn't all that — his median fastball was probably 89 mph — but he didn't walk the ballpark and he got five strikeouts. That alone should be enough for the big left-hander with the cyclonic, whirling-dervish delivery to feel satisfied for the first time in a long time. Fans at Comerica cheered his first effective outing as a Tiger.

"Now that I feel healthy and strong, I think I can start building some trust out there," said Willis, who's still only 27 years old.

It's not that folks were wondering if the D-Train was gonna stop here anymore, but if he should just stop trying to pitch, period.

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After zipping across the country in his first few seasons, the man with the biggest of leg kicks encountered big problems on the mound. In 2007, he led the league in earned runs and appeared on the down slope of a one-promising career. He was traded to the Tigers before '08, and while he struggled for the Marlins, he had been disastrous in Detroit — finishing with a 9.38 ERA and nearly twice as many walks as strikeouts in eight galling appearances.

Paid like a Cadillac, runs like a Chrysler.

This spring, Willis was diagnosed with a somewhat mysterious anxiety disorder, another kick in the caboose. I don't know if it has anything do with feeling anxious about losing his baseball career, or if it's just genetic and chemical, but his struggles on the field couldn't have helped.

In 2003, Willis was a revelation in baseball. He won 14 games and the NL Rookie of the Year for the eventual World Series champion and, in 2005, Willis finished second in Cy Young voting after leading the league with 22 victories and five shutouts.

Just as importantly, Willis also projected the personality of someone who was having fun at his craft. Willis was good and stylish doing it — a formula upon which baseball has thrived over the years. It's also rare. And fleeting.

Here's hoping the D-Train keeps running on time.

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