Willis is 2-2 with a 4.26 ERA and leads the Ducks with 45 strikeouts but is battling triceps tendinitis. He pitched in spring training for the Cubs, but the 31-year-old lefty was released in March.
As he goes about the process of trying to regain his old form, he realizes the Atlantic League is much different than the big leagues.
“My velocity is starting to climb up,” Willis said. “I’m having a good time. It’s a little tough though. I’m used to things happening at a higher level, and it doesn’t happen down here.”
Ducks general manager Michael Pfaff believes Willis is a positive clubhouse influence and loves how Willis interacts with fans.
“He has a gregarious personality that everyone knows about,” Pfaff said, “but I think being able to see it up close is exciting for the Ducks fans and fans of the Atlantic League when he travels on the road. I think it’s a win-win for everybody involved.”
But winning is just part of what the Ducks, who are not affiliated with a major league team, try to accomplish. They hope to send players back to the major leagues.
The players see the Ducks as an opportunity to do so. There always seems to be a handful of former major leaguers on the roster, hoping for another chance.
Juan Gonzalez, Carl Everett and Carlos Baerga had stints in Long Island, while this year's team includes Ramon Castro, Josh Barfield, Ben Broussard and Ian Snell. Vladimir Guerrero is on the roster but hasn't reported to the team.
Willis, however, said he's focused on pitching rather than worrying about using the Atlantic League as a stepping stone for a return to the majors.
“I would hope that everybody in here would want to get to the big leagues,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to play with anybody that doesn’t. I want to be around guys that want to be here and want to work hard and get better at their craft. That’s what I’m trying to do being one of the veteran guys.”
He has used his experience to teach some of the other pitchers. Anyone can look up his 4.17 ERA over 1,222 major league innings and 2003 World Series win with the Marlins. But he said he takes a different approach while mentoring.
“I teach people through failure and how I was feeling when I didn’t succeed,” Willis said. “I think that’s where they really respect me more.”
Ducks bench coach Buddy Harrelson has seen a lot of improvement from Willis.
“He didn't start strong,” the 16-year MLB veteran said. “It's been a while, but he's getting there.”
Willis, who is expected to miss just one start with his injury, will have more chances to show he's put the past few years behind him. But for now, he's fine being in the Atlantic League and just grateful for the chance to play competitively.
“I’m having fun pitching,” Willis said, “and going out there and representing the Ducks in the best fashion I can.”