LIKE A LOT of pitchers, Dontrelle Willis hasn't had a whole lot of success at Citizens Bank Park. The former starter, who was officially signed as a free agent by the Phillies yesterday, has a 3-4 record with a 7.14 ERA at the Bank.
However, unlike a lot of pitchers, Willis does have a fond memory at the Phils' hitter-friendly phone booth. And he has longtime friend Jimmy Rollins to thank for it.
"I actually hit a home run here with Jimmy's bat," Willis said, laughing. "It's just fun playing here. I've always had a good time playing here. I've been around all over, and I love the city."
The homer came off Kyle Lohse in 2007. But Willis is not in red pinstripes because he's a respectable .244 career hitter or because he hit .387 for the Reds last year.
As Antonio Bastardo ran out of gas down the stretch of the 102-win season, acquiring a veteran lefthander to the bullpen was added to general manager Ruben Amaro's checklist. In Willis, the Phillies have a veteran pitcher, though a relative novice out of the bullpen.
Currently, the four lefthanded bullpen arms on the 40-man roster are Willis, Bastardo and minor leaguers Joe Savery and Jake Diekman.
"Dontrelle, I believe, is at a point in his career where he is ready to make the transition to being an effective reliever," Amaro said in a statement. "Because of his experience, past success and overall positive energy, we feel this will be an opportunity to benefit both him and the team, especially with the success he has had against lefthanded hitters, both recently and over the course of his career."
Lefties hit .127 off Willis last season (7-for-55) and .200 in his 9-year career.
Willis has pitched in relief only three times in 205 regular-season appearances. But when he helped the Marlins win the 2003 championship, he pitched 3 2/3 scoreless innings out of the bullpen in the World Series against the Yankees.
"I do know that you have to have a short-term memory in that bullpen," he said. "You don't have 5 days to think about the mistakes you made. With [closer Jonathan] Papelbon back there, he'll help me out a lot as far as getting ready and having that mentality of being a guy in the bullpen."
Willis signed a 1-year deal for $850,000, so if he doesn't have the command he displayed when he was at the top of his game in 2005, the Phillies can move on with relatively little wasted. Willis won 22 games in '05. Since then, he is 26-42, has averaged 4.7 walks per nine innings and is now with his fifth organization. He turns 30 on Jan. 12.
"I have to step back and have fun," he said. "Sometimes, in your career, you get in a grind. [I've learned] you don't have to be perfect. You just have to go out there and compete . . . go out and let things fly. Once I started doing that, I started to see my command come back, my strength come back and just enjoy the game. As long as I go out there, read the signs and let it fly, I'll be successful."
Even before he signed, Willis was outspoken that the Phillies needed to re-sign Rollins, the star shortstop who is in free-agency limbo. Willis is 3 years younger than J-Roll and attended the same high school as Rollins (Encinal in Alameda, Calif.). Their families have known each other for years.
"I talk to him pretty often. He's fired up [about Willis' signing]. He's definitely fired up," Willis said. "We need to sign him, too. We got the little stuff out of the way, now we have to get to the big stuff and get the big guy back."