The 22-year-old left-hander looks to snap a three-game losing streak as the Marlins aim to push their winning streak to five games in the opener of a three-game set with the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.
Willis had a meteoric rise to All-Star status by opening the season 11-2 with a 2.56 ERA over his first 17 starts, winning eight straight decisions at one point.
However, he is 0-3 with an 8.50 ERA i his last four starts.
Willis’ agent said the young hurler is beginning to tire due to the incessant media and public relations demands on him.
“Everybody is praising you when you’re up and kicking you when you’re down,” Willis said. “I’m always ready for it. My teammates know I’m going to give it everything I’ve got every time I pitch.”
Willis continued the skid with Thursday’s 5-0 loss to Pittsburgh, surrendering three runs and seven hits over five innings. He walked three and struck out two in his first career start against the Pirates.
“Overall, he didn’t pitch that bad,” Marlins manager Jack McKeon said. “He was sharp. He was throwing 92, 93 mph.”
Florida completed a four-game sweep of Montreal with Monday’s 5-2 victory, as Brad Penny combined with two relievers on a three-hitter. The four-game sweep was the first for the Marlins since May 1996, when they took four in a row from Colorado.
Florida, which had dropped eight of nine before the sweep, moved one game ahead of Philadelphia in the tightly packed NL wild-card race.
Pittsburgh has lost two straight with Sunday’s 10-4 setback to Atlanta. Reggie Sanders went 2-for-3 with two RBIs for the Pirates, who had won four straight before the skid.
STANDINGS: Pirates - 4th place, 9 GB, NL Central. Marlins - 2nd place, 13 GB, NL East.
PIRATES PROBABLE STARTER: Kip Wells (6-7, 3.71 ERA). Wells snapped a three-game losing streak with Wednesday’s 4-0 win over the Marlins. The 26-year-old right-hander, who had a 5.04 ERA over four starts during the skid, allowed just two hits over seven masterful innings against Florida, striking out seven and walking two. Wells is 1-2 with a 3.65 ERA in four career starts against the Marlins.
MARLINS PROBABLE STARTER: Willis (11-5, 3.43 ERA). Opponents are hitting .249 and have an on-base percentage of .314 against Willis, who has struck out 109 and walked 43 over 123 1-3 innings this season.
OFFENSIVE LEADERS: Pirates - Jason Kendall .318 avg. and 75 runs; Sanders, 29 HRs, 74 RBIs and 11 SBs. Marlins - Luis Castillo, .326 avg. and 87 runs; Mike Lowell, 32 HRs and 105 RBIs; Juan Pierre, 57 SBs.
SEASON SERIES: Pirates, 3-0.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Pirates - C Kendall has been hit by 23 pitches this season, the most in baseball. … SS Jack Wilson’s 17-game hitting streak ended Sunday when he went 0-for-5. … The Pirates are 10-10 against the NL East this season. Marlins - Jeff Conine, an original member of the Marlins and part of the 1997 World Series championship team, was reacquired Sunday from Baltimore. He went 1-for-3 with an RBI in his debut Monday. … 2B Castillo, who has a 15-game hitting streak, was given Monday off. He is batting .400 (24-for-60) during the streak. … Florida is 60-1 this season when leading after seven innings.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Pirates - 30-34 on the road; Marlins - 44-25 at home.
INJURIES: Pirates - 2B Pat Meares (hand), 60-day DL; 2B Pokey Reese (thumb), 60-day DL; RHP Kris Benson (shoulder), 60-day DL; LHP Dave Williams (shoulder), 60-day DL. Marlins - 3B Lowell (hand), 15-day DL; OF Todd Hollandsworth (back), 15-day DL; LHP Armando Almanza (shoulder), 15-day DL; LHP Tommy Phelps (elbow), 15-day DL; RHP Toby Borland (appendix), 60-day DL; RHP A.J. Burnett (elbow), 60-day DL; RHP Kevin Olsen (concussion), 60-day DL; RHP Tim Spooneybarger (arm), 60-day DL.