He’ll look for a similar effort as the Florida Marlins face the Mets in the finale of their series at Shea Stadium.
Marlins manager Jack McKeon compares Willis to Dwight Gooden and Vida Blue. Art Howe mentions Fernando Valenzuela and Luis Tiant.
But Willis, the energetic and demonstrative 21-year-old rookie who exhibits some qualities possessed by all those pitchers, realizes his early success doesn’t mean he’s a star just yet.
“These are the best baseball players in the world; it never gets easy,” said Willis, who struck out eight and walked one against the Mets on June 16. “When you start getting relaxed, that’s when they get they get aggressive. You could go 6-1 and turn around and be 6-6 quick.”
So naturally, the modest Willis followed that performance with a win in Florida’s 2-0 victory against Tampa Bay on Saturday, limiting the Devil Rays to two hits in five innings in a rain-shortened game.
Willis (7-1) struck out four, walked only one and lowered his ERA for the season to 2.38.
“That’s the sign of a good pitcher, a guy who can go out there, not have his best stuff and still get the hitters out,” McKeon said. “It was one of those nights. You know things are going good for him when you can sneak in that one.”
To oppose Willis, New York finally will unveil their top pitching prospect, as Aaron Heilman will make his major league debut. The Mets’ top draft pick from 2001 was 6-4 with a 3.24 ERA at Triple-A Norfolk this year.
“I’m anxious to see how he’s progressed since spring training,” said Howe, who noted the right-hander struggled briefly to command his fastball at Norfolk.
“I’ll talk to him when he gets here. He’s ready for this. He’s paid his dues.”
The Mets evened the three-game series with the Marlins at a game apiece with a 6-3 win Wednesday night. Rookie shortstop Jose Reyes drove in three runs, and Steve Trachsel pitched seven sharp innings and had a sacrifice fly to help the Mets ended their four-game losing streak.
STANDINGS: Marlins - 4th place, 12 GB, NL East. Mets - 5th place, 15 GB, NL East.
MARLINS PROBABLE STARTER: Willis (7-1, 2.38 ERA). In his last six starts, his ERA is even more impressive—0.84. He’s allowed four runs in 42 2-3 innings during his winning streak, with three coming against Milwaukee on June 11.
METS PROBABLE STARTER: Heilman (no record). Heilman went 1-2 with a 4.05 ERA in five games—two of which were starts—during spring training this season.
OFFENSIVE LEADERS: Marlins - Alex Gonzalez, .323 avg.; Mike Lowell, 24 HRs, 65 RBIs and 50 runs; Juan Pierre, 31 SBs. Mets - Ty Wigginton, .273 avg. and 43 runs; Cliff Floyd, 14 HRs and 41 RBIs; Roberto Alomar, 6 SBs.
SEASON SERIES: Tied, 6-6.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Marlins - Florida is 11-27 in its last 38 games against New York. … OF Juan Encarnacion has not homered since June 12. … 3B Lowell’s home run in the first inning of Wednesday’s defeat was the 100th of his career. Mets - SS Reyes had an RBI hit in the second and a two-run single with the bases loaded in the sixth inning on Wednesday to make it 5-3. He has driven in 11 of his 14 runs with the bases loaded. … LF Floyd was pulled out of the starting lineup because of his sore right Achilles’ tendon. Howe decided to give Floyd the night off after batting practice and said he’s day to day. … OF Jeromy Burnitz made his first start in LF for the Mets this season. Both he and OF Cedeno have played each outfield position this season.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Marlins - 16-22 on the road; Mets - 17-19 at home.
INJURIES: Marlins - RHP Josh Beckett (elbow), 15-day DL; RHP Toby Borland (appendicitis), 60-day DL; RHP Tim Spooneybarger (arm), 15-day DL; RHP A.J. Burnett (elbow), 60-day DL. Mets - C Mike Piazza (groin), 15-day DL; INF Rey Sanchez (thumb), 15-day DL; LHP Mike Stanton (knee), 15-day DL; RHP Pedro Astacio (shoulder), 60-day DL; RHP Grant Roberts (shoulder), 60-day DL; RHP Scott Strickland (elbow), 60-day DL; 1B Mo Vaughn (knee), 60-day DL.