Willis pitched seven strong innings and hit his first major league home run, leading the Florida Marlins over the slumping Cincinnati Reds 3-2 Saturday night.
Willis (3-1) allowed one run and five hits while striking out eight, and he also came through at the plate, delivering a solo home run to snap a 1-1 tie in the fifth.
It was the second win in less than a week for Willis against the Reds. The 21-year-old rookie pitched eight innings en route to a 2-1 win last Sunday, and he followed that up with another impressive outing. Starting with the third inning, Willis allowed only two baserunners to reach second.
“I was just in a zone all night. They got a couple of hard hit balls for base hits, but if you’re down in the zone, good things are going to happen,” Willis said.
The Marlins snapped a two-game losing skid and have won seven of nine. The Reds have lost seven of nine.
Willis improved to 3-1 in five starts since being added to the rotation earlier this month. He continued a trend of impressive outings by Marlins’ starters. In their last nine games, they have allowed just nine runs in 58 2-3 innings (1.53 ERA).
“He did an outstanding job,” Marlins manager Jack McKeon said. “That’s two games in a row. He probably would have finished if we had let him, but he did his job. The first couple of games he was getting behind, but he’s learning, and he’s a competitor.”
The game was tied at 1-all when Willis stepped to the plate to open the fifth against Danny Graves. He drilled the first pitch over the wall in right-center, a 403-foot blast. It was Willis’ first home run since the final game of his senior year in high school in 2000.
“I hit the ball toward the gap,” Willis said. “I was thinking extra-base hit out of the box. I thought I hit it hard enough to get in the gap. I didn’t think I hit it hard enough to go over the fence.”
Graves (3-4) worked 7 2-3 innings, allowing three runs and nine hits. The pitch against Willis was his biggest mistake of the night.
“The pitch was up, not where it was supposed to be,” Graves said. “Anybody who has a bat can make some damage. He has taken some good cuts since he’s been up.”
Braden Looper, who blew a save chance Friday night, pitched the ninth for his ninth save.
The Reds took a 1-0 lead in the second inning when Aaron Boone led off with a triple and scored on Sean Casey’s single. Jason LaRue followed with a double, but Willis struck out the next three batters.
Florida tied it in the third. Juan Pierre drew a leadoff walk, stole second and advanced to third on LaRue’s throwing error. Ivan Rodriguez, who struck out four times on Friday, delivered an RBI single.
The Marlins added a run in the seventh. Alex Gonzalez led off with a double, went to third on a sacrifice and scored on a squeeze bunt by Pierre.
The Reds closed to 3-2 in the eighth on Ken Griffey Jr.’s RBI groundout off Tim Spooneybarger. Griffey, who hit two home runs and a double in Friday night’s 4-3, 11-inning victory, struck out twice and doubled.
In two games against Willis, the Reds have managed one run and 11 hits in 15 innings, and struck out 17 times.
“He’s making a lot of really good pitches,” Reds manager Bob Boone said. “His ball is sinking, and it’s sinking down below the knees. When he does geta pitch up, it takes off on the hitter, and that’s tough.”
Reds starters have gone 15 games without a victory. The last win by a starter was Graves’ 4-0 shutout at St. Louis on May 14. During the stretch, the starters are 0-7 with seven no-decisions. … Marlins 3B Mike Lowell went 0-for-4, ending his nine-game hitting streak. … Marlins RF Juan Encarnacion misplayed a ball for the second straight game. On Friday, Encarnacion lost a ball in the shadows, and it went for a double for Griffey. On Saturday, Encarnacion couldn’t find the ball in the sun, and it went for a ground-rule double for LaRue. … Willis has at least seven strikeouts in four of his five big league starts. … Willis’ two hits this year are a double and home run. … For only the third time in franchise history, the Marlins did not strike out. The only other times that happened were against Atlanta on Aug. 15, 1995,and Toronto on July 15, 1999.