ANAHEIM -- Reggie Willits heard all about the grind, how the season is a marathon, how you need to keep the long haul in mind while you're playing every game with passion. But until you go through it, he now realizes, there's no way to fully appreciate the challenge of a 162-game Major League season. "It's been harder than I thought," the Angels' invaluable rookie outfielder said as rain fell and his club prepared for Saturday's game against the Mariners, one win away from clinching the American League West title. "The physical part, the length of it, the coast-to-coast travel with time changes ... there's a lot more involved than I realized.
"I went through the same thing in my first full Minor League season. I got to a point and said, `Whoa, there's a month left.' But then the next season, I was fine. That's kind of what it's been like here. I've learned a lot, and I think it'll help a lot in the future." With Garret Anderson sidelined much of the first half with a hip flexor tear and Chone Figgins out with two broken fingertips the first month, Willits was a huge help to manager Mike Scioscia in several respects. His extraordinary patience at the plate and ability to find ways to get on base in front of Orlando Cabrera and Vladimir Guerrero at the top of the order helped keep the offense humming, while his defense at all three outfield spots was first-rate. Willits was the right guy at the right time in the right place. "It's a fun team to be part of, the way we play the game," Willits said. "I hope I'm never on a team that sits back and waits for the home run. That's not my style. I've been blessed to be in this organization. It's exactly the kind of game I love to play -- aggressive on the bases, going all-out. Hopefully, I'll get better as we go along." Willits seemed to hit the wall after the All-Star break, his average tumbling from a high of .352 on June 23 to a low of .286 on Sept. 9. But he found his second wind and has been back to his assertive, confident play the past few weeks, easing the loss of Gary Matthews Jr. for a week and a half with a sprained ankle. Matthews was back in center field on Saturday, Willits taking a seat on the bench with Figgins in right. With hits in eight of his last nine starts, going 12-for-32 in the stretch, Willits is hitting .293 with a .393 on-base percentage. His 26 steals are second on the club to Figgins' 40. "Reggie's had a terrific season," Scioscia said. "He's a big part of that depth that has got us to this point, a big part of our offensive chemistry. He's been incredibly valuable to us." Rotation issues: Scioscia doesn't seem overly concerned with his starting pitching heading down the stretch, even though it's been inconsistent overall behind John Lackey in recent weeks. Angels starters are fourth in the AL in ERA at 4.25, behind the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Indians. Lackey (3.13) is third in the league behind Cleveland's Fausto Carmona (3.03) and Oakland's Dan Haren (3.12), with Kelvim Escobar (3.46) ninth. "I think there's going to be ebbs and flows with every rotation," Scioscia said. "I don't think there's a time when we've had three or four guys out of sync. For close to a couple of months, I couldn't remember a bad start. "Their stuff is maintained. They're fresh. Kelvim is a little nicked up, but other than that, they're in good shape. Maybe the results haven't been eye-popping, but these guys will be fine." Escobar had his scheduled turn on Saturday pushed back to "early next week," as Scioscia put it, which would have the sturdy right-hander on the mound in Texas for one of three games starting on Monday night. "I'm OK -- nothing to worry about," Escobar said of the shoulder inflammation the club referenced as the reason for plugging Bartolo Colon into his spot on Saturday. Maybe the Angels should consider themselves lucky. Neither Jered Weaver nor Joe Saunders was injured after taking line drives off Mariners bats in this series -- Weaver off his right foot, Saunders off his lower leg, just above the left ankle. Guerrero update: Guerrero plans to test his throwing arm in Texas, Scioscia said, with the hope that he'll be able to take his place in right field by the end of the road trip and regular season in Oakland. "It could come quickly or it might not come," Scioscia said. "We're targeting Texas, but it's whenever he and the training staff feel comfortable with it." If Guerrero isn't able to play right field, the Angels have a variety of options there: Willits, Figgins, Juan Rivera, Nathan Haynes. On Sept. 22 in Angels history: In 1986, Bobby Grich stroked a three-run homer in a 4-3 victory over the Indians in the first game of a doubleheader. Don Sutton notched his 15th win, going six innings with relief from Chuck Finley and Doug Corbett. The Tribe claimed the nightcap, 7-0, ending a four-game Angels winning streak. Up next: Lackey (17-9, 3.13 ERA) faces ex-Angels starter Jeff Weaver (7-12, 6.21) at 12:35 p.m. PT in the Angels final game with the Mariners this season.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.