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Willis expects Rollins to sign with Phillies

Jimmy Rollins and Dontrelle Willis grew up in the same town, attended the same high school, and both had mothers who played professional softball.

Jimmy Rollins and Dontrelle Willis grew up in the same town, attended the same high school, and both had mothers who played professional softball.

They have long traded barbs about who is better - Rollins, for the record, is only a career .239 hitter in 63 at-bats against Willis - and fostered a kinship as two Bay Area African-Americans playing baseball.

But they've never been teammates, until now.

Well, maybe.

OK, probably.

"He was probably more excited about the deal than I was," Willis said of Rollins.

Willis officially became a Phillie on Thursday when he passed his physical.

The Phillies signed the former rookie of the year to a one-year deal for $850,000. Performance incentives could push his salary above $1 million.

For the first time in his career, Willis will be a reliever, one the Phillies hope can successfully retire lefthanders. Willis turns 30 in Jan. and said he had interest from a handful of other teams and could have possibly remained a starter elsewhere.

The allure of Philadelphia - and a possible reunion with Rollins - was too enticing.

"I wanted to win," Willis said, "and what better ball club to be with than Philadelphia? So at this point in my career, that's what it's all about; enjoying the game and having fun."

Playing with Rollins would be a bonus. The longtime Phillies shortstop remains unsigned, but indications are that the two sides will eventually reach an accord.

Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has engaged Rollins' agent, Dan Lozano, in negotiations since last week's winter meetings. Both sides are steadfast in their demands, despite the market all but evaporating for shortstops.

Willis said he talks to Rollins often. The two were never teammates at Encinal High in Alameda, Calif. Willis played with Rollins' younger brother, Antwon. But Willis remembers shagging fly balls for Rollins during batting practice and watching Rollins learn to switch hit with instruction from his father.

Willis spoke Thursday like it's all but guaranteed he'll play alongside Rollins in 2012.

"It's pretty surreal to come full circle," Willis said. "I think our families are more excited for this than we are."

Willis was excited enough to commit to a role he's never filled before. The Phillies plan for him to be another lefthanded specialist behind Antonio Bastardo. Control issues derailed his career, but Willis held lefties to a .127 batting average in 2011 as a starter with Cincinnati.

He could also moonlight as a spot starter if the Phillies encounter injury problems.

"Waiting for myself to clear after the physical was probably the longest hour of my life," Willis said. "I just thought about what it meant to me to be a Phillie. It's a blessing to be here."

As a pitcher with an unusual passion for hitting, he'll also surrender the opportunity to hit regularly because of his new role. (Willis is a career .244 hitter and batted .387 with five extra-base hits in 2011.)

But Willis said the Phillies floated the idea of using him as a pinch-hitter sometimes. And his agent, Matt Sosnick, had the Phillies insert a clause into Willis' contract that pays him a $25,000 bonus if he accrues 30 plate appearances.

Coincidentally, one of Willis' nine career home runs came in Citizens Bank Park. The bat he used to hit it belonged to Rollins.

Willis believes he'll have another chance to swing his friend's bat.

"He's definitely fired up," Willis said. "We need to sign him, too. We got the little stuff out of the way, so we have to get to the big stuff and get the big guy back."