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05/12/07 4:00 PM ET
Notes: Willits making strong case
Rookie outfielder competing for everyday playing time
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
ARLINGTON -- As fourth outfielders go, Reggie Willits has been about as good as it gets. So good, in fact, that he is making a strong case for playing time even when the Angels Big Three of Garret Anderson, Gary Matthews Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero reunites. That could happen fairly soon, with Anderson making steady progress in his recovery from a tear in his right hip flexor muscle. Taking full advantage of his opportunity to play every day, Willits was batting .362 -- best among American League rookies -- with a .436 on-base percentage as he assumed the leadoff role on Saturday against Texas. The whippet from the plains of Oklahoma has led off and hit ninth eight times apiece, and he has batted second and third on three occasions each. Willits' versatility has enabled manager Mike Scioscia to drop Matthews -- six RBIs in the past three games and tied for second in the AL with 14 multi-hit games -- into a run-producing spot. The center fielder hit cleanup on Saturday, behind Guerrero, for the second straight game, this time against Rangers right-hander Kameron Loe. Willits, 25, has scored 10 runs and stolen six bases without getting caught while playing solid defense at all three outfield spots. "Reggie's upside in the organization was as an everyday player," Scioscia said. "He's worked hard to get where he is. He has the potential to be an everyday player. Right now, he's getting a chance. He's also shown the ability to fill a role as a reserve player. "He's been, I'm not going to say a surprise, but a big boost to our club. He has given us continuity, and it has had a cascading effect on the lineup." Willits works counts, giving balance to an offense with its share of free swingers. "My goal every year is to have more walks than strikeouts," Willits said. "Last year was the first time I've done that." Appearing in 25 of the club's first 36 games this season, Willits had worked nine walks while striking out 11 times. He figures to have a lot of opportunities to balance those scales as one of the most productive rookies in the American League. Hillenbrand back in action: Shea Hillenbrand was back in the designated hitter role, batting seventh, against Loe after missing three consecutive starts. Hillenbrand has used his time to work with hitting coach Mickey Hatcher on getting a more comfortable setup in the batter's box. A two-time All-Star, Hillenbrand had only two extra-base hits (both doubles) in 102 at-bats, driving in seven runs. He had a career-high 21 homers last year, dividing time between Toronto and San Francisco, and he has driven in 80-plus runs four times with a high of 97 in 2003. "A couple of days off for Hilly were productive," Scioscia said. "He's kind of exhaled a little bit. He worked on some things with his swing. We've talked about our offense, what we need from Hilly, and I know he feels good about where he is with his swing. "I know he'll feel better when he gets some hits and drives some runs in." Said Hillenbrand: "I just want to compete. Sometimes you get out of whack, and you have to work things out. Everybody's swing is different. I feel a lot better about my setup, my stance, now. I think I can repeat it consistently." Farm report: In Friday's action, Joe Saunders had a solid start -- giving up three runs, two earned, on five hits and two walks with four strikeouts over six innings -- in a 3-2 loss to Memphis by Triple-A Salt Lake City. Reliever Marcus Gwyn lowered his ERA to 0.96 with two scoreless innings. Terry Evans had two doubles and is hitting .317. Center fielder Nathan Haynes was hitless, dropping his average to .395. Double-A Arkansas got three RBIs from first baseman Michael Collins in a 3-1 win over Tulsa behind Fernando Rodriguez Jr., who gave up three hits and one unearned run in six innings. Jose Arredondo picked up his third save and has a 3.77 ERA. Arkansas dropped the second game of the doubleheader, 5-4. Brok Butcher (3-2, 0.96 ERA) worked six scoreless innings, striking out five, as Class A Rancho Cucamonga beat Bakersfield, 2-1. Darren O'Day, who picked up his eighth save, hasn't given up an earned run in 10 1/3 innings. In a 4-2 loss to West Michigan, Class A Cedar Rapids got three doubles from DH Christopher Pettit, who's hitting .355 with a club-high 18 RBIs -- two more than 2006 No. 1 draft pick Hank Conger, who's batting .257 while catching 20 of 31 games. Right-hander Tim Schoeninger (5-1, 2.36 ERA) has 29 strikeouts against two walks in 42 innings. Lefty Douglas Brandt (2-0, 0.91 ERA) has 30 strikeouts against seven walks in 29 2/3 innings. Stat of the day: Angels starting pitchers have given up three or fewer runs in 14 of the past 17 games. The 3.23 ERA by the club's starters is second in the AL, and they lead in innings (220 1/3) and strikeouts (179). Up next: Ervin Santana (2-5, 5.23 ERA) bids for his first road win of the season on Sunday at 12:05 p.m. PT. He'll face Rangers right-hander Mike Wood (0-1, 6.39 ERA).
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.