CHICAGO -- Making the 200th big league start of his career, Reds lefty Dontrelle Willis began by pitching phenomenally. And just like that, he wasn't.
Willis' record sank to 0-5 as he became winless in 11 starts during a 4-3 Reds loss to the Cubs that came down to his not making pitches -- and a couple of plays not being made -- in the middle innings.
Over seven innings, Willis gave up four runs on six hits, with five walks (one intentional) and eight strikeouts. It was only the second time he allowed more than three earned runs -- but also the third straight start where he walked five batters.
"It's frustrating, because I've pitched worse and won," said Willis, whose ERA inched up slightly to 4.21. "By the same token, I like the way me and [catcher Devin] Mesoraco worked out there, especially for his first start. This is my 200th big league start, so I am happy to have that longevity. I will continue to battle and fight, and hopefully I will get one [win] and then [more] in bunches."
As the Reds gave him a 1-0 first-inning lead on a Yonder Alonso RBI single that scored Drew Stubbs against Cubs starter Matt Garza, Willis was cruising.
It wasn't just that Chicago went nine up and nine down early vs. Willis -- he was nearly flawless. Of the 29 pitches he threw during that stretch, 24 were strikes.
"That was the Dontrelle that I knew," Reds manager Dusty Baker said of the former 22-game winner and All-Star. "Boy, he was throwing strikes. He had great command of everything."
It took Willis 50 pitches to get through the next two innings, as his troubles began in the fourth inning.
After leadoff man Starlin Castro walked on four pitches for his first baserunner, Willis issued back-to-back, one-out walks that loaded the bases. Chicago's first hit came when Alfonso Soriano smacked a hard RBI single into left field, before Willis escaped without additional damage.
There were two outs in the Cubs' fifth when Castro singled, initiating a three-run rally. Reed Johnson hit a catchable fly to the warning track in left field. Alonso, who had problems negotiating left field at Wrigley Field during his previous visit, had trouble tracking the ball in the gusty winds. The ball landed untouched in the ivy for a ground-rule double.
After fouling three straight balls, Aramis Ramirez kept the inning going with a two-run single to left field. After Castro scored on the hit, Johnson slid in just ahead of the throw, as Mesoraco juggled Alonso's throw home. Neither Mesoraco, nor a covering Willis, noticed that Johnson didn't touch the plate. Since no one applied a tag, Johnson came back and stepped on home plate for a second run.
"Honestly, I did not know where the ball was at the time," Mesoraco said. "It was kind of a weird hop. And when it came in, I didn't get a glove on it. I wasn't sure where it went. I was just looking and looking. By the time I realized he didn't make a sign and he didn't touch the plate, Dontrelle already had the ball and he was coming back."
After a Jeff Baker double, Ramirez scored from third on a Willis wild pitch to make it a three-run game. Mesoraco felt the ruling should have been a passed ball.
"I was trying to be too fine, and not trying to throw to the heart of the plate and forcing contact and stuff," Willis said. "In situations like that, you have to force the issue and get contact -- especially the way our defense plays behind us. I have to do a better job of preventing the big inning, and continue to attack and keep our defense on [its] toes."
There was a mishap offensively in the third inning, too. Stubbs was on second base with one out and running, when Joey Votto flied to right field. Stubbs was still standing on third base when the throw went to second base to complete an inning-ending double play.
"He knew how many outs there [were]," Baker said. "He was going by the sound of the bat. He thought that ball was going to fall in there."
Mesoraco's first RBI was a groundout to shortstop that scored Alonso in the seventh. In the eighth, Garza was on the ropes after Brandon Phillips scored when Votto reached on Castro's two-out error at shortstop. Still, Garza escaped after a walk to Jay Bruce put the tying run on first base.
"Garza was fantastic. He pitched around a couple mistakes," Cubs manager Mike Quade said.
There were mistakes that the Reds didn't overcome, which would ultimately cost them the game. They are 2-2 so far on a nine-game road trip.
"Especially in one-run ballgames like that, you can't have anything to give extra outs," Mesoraco said. "[Willis] threw the ball great, though. I was happy with that."