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Willits wants to start, but adapts to bench role

Willits wants to start, but adapts to bench role

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Willits wants to start, but adapts to bench role
PHOENIX -- Reggie Willits is the fifth Beatle, the fifth defensive back, the fifth wheel. He's the Broadway understudy waiting in the wings and memorizing all the lines, hoping to get a chance to show how perfectly he can deliver them.

He's too nice a guy to wish ill will on the esteemed gentlemen ahead of him on the depth chart, but he really would like to get to play now and then. It's what he always did, and did well, before reaching The Show and learning it's not all show and tell.

"I'm not going to complain," Willits said. "But deep down inside, I'm going to think I can play every day. And I don't think they would want me around here if I didn't feel that way."

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Willits has appeared in four Cactus League games with one hit in seven at-bats. He started in left against the Brewers on Saturday and batted third. That happens about as often as his manager, Mike Scioscia, talks about where his team's place is in the standings.

"I wasn't myself for some reason," Willits said, having gone hitless in three at-bats with a walk. "I was out front, jumping at the ball. That's not me."

Willits knows his role and how to perform the game's less glamorous tasks. He's there for whatever Scioscia needs, generally in the late innings of a close game. He'll drop a bunt, pinch-hit, pinch-run, handle any of the three outfield positions for defensive purposes.

"I approach every day almost like I'm playing every game, even though I know I'm not," he said. "The key is staying mentally on top of things. I work in the [batting] cage on what I need to do with my mechanics to have a good at-bat, if that's what I'm called to do. I keep my focus on the game, pitch-by-pitch.

"You never know when you're going to be called -- and you better be ready."

Willits had one period in his Major League career where he played regularly, and he excelled. It was 2007, his rookie year, and Garret Anderson was injured early in the season in Chicago.

Willits moved into left field -- a position he'd rarely played as a center fielder in the Angels' system -- and acted as if he'd been there for years.

He mostly led off or batted ninth and put the offense in motion, setting franchise records for rookies in batting average (.293) and on-base percentage (.391). He ran the bases with intelligent aggression, racking up 27 steals in 35 attempts.

He played 136 games and had 518 plate appearances. In the three seasons since his rookie year, Willits has 410 plate appearances, with a high of 182 last season, when he batted .258 with a .341 on-base percentage.

"In '08, when I didn't get to play, I would fight that mentally," Willits said. "I wanted to play. Still do. I'd watched Robb Quinlan, how he was able to handle that role. I asked him, `How do you do that? Sit here and then go up and hit once a week?'

"[Quinlan] said the key is not accepting this as your role, feeling every day that you can play. But you can't let it consume you. That kind of made me switch my mindset. How do I get good at that role? How do I go from playing every day to once a week, once every two weeks?"

The only sensible answer, Quinlan suggested, was to play a little mind trick on himself.

"I had to come to the park every day and prepare as if I was going to play," Willits said. "I had to just take it as another challenge. You'll never master it; it's like hitting. You just have to stay mentally strong and always be ready for whatever you're asked to do.

"So you study pitchers, tendencies, positioning, all those things. And then when you're called, you battle your way through, whether it's having a good at-bat, playing defense, pinch-running. It's all about mental discipline."

Willits is a safety net for manager Mike Scioscia, who appreciates the Oklahoma native's ability to adapt to the situation and perform multiple small-ball roles with intelligence and precision.

"Reggie's an important piece for us on the bench," Scioscia said. "He can do a lot of things, some that don't appear in a box score. You need good role players, depth, and he's part of that."

Willits and his family experienced a frightful accident this spring. His wife, Amber, suffered a fractured leg while playing soccer with their children, Jaxon and Eli, showing them a move on the slick early-morning grass.

"She's doing as well as can be expected," Willits said. "It was a bad break, similar to what happened to [former Angels outfielder] Juan Rivera [after the 2006 season]. We're doing the best we can, but it's a little rough right now."

As in his professional life, Reggie will adapt and be there for his wife and their boys.

It's who he is and what he does.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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