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02/14/08 5:08 PM ET

Willits energized after surprise surgery

Gallbladder procedure cures outfielder's ailments

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Upon further review, Reggie Willits' rookie season with the Angels was even more amazing than anyone realized.

Bothered all season by persistent pains in the stomach and rib cage, Willits persevered. The source of the disturbance went undiagnosed until it was determined with extensive winter testing that he had a non-functioning gallbladder.

Jan. 7 surgery for removal of the gallbladder has Willits in camp early at Tempe Diablo Stadium, rehabilitating in great spirits. His eventful winter also featured the Dec. 9 birth of a second son, Eli, and a Super Bowl triumph by his favorite football team, the New York Giants.

"I feel 100 times better since I had my surgery," Willits said on Thursday, decked out in a New York Giants cap and T-shirt as pitchers and catchers reported. "My energy is coming back. It was something that zapped my energy level a little bit and caused me to fade down a little more than I should."

For his role in helping drive the Angels to the American League West title, Willits finished fifth in the AL Rookie of the Year race. He was invaluable offensively, as an exciting catalyst setting club rookie records with a .293 batting average and .393 on-base percentage, while capably handling all three outfield spots.

Playing in 136 games, Willits had 502 plate appearances, drawing 69 walks and stealing 27 bases. The Angels were 42-19 when he scored a run, and his 4.4 pitches seen per at-bat led the AL, underscoring his remarkable patience.

Hitting .312 at the All-Star break, he fell to .271 in the second half. It apparently was not, as some suspected, a case of wearing down as much as coping with a dysfunctional gallbladder that weakened his system.

"I kind of battled stomach issues all year," Willits said. "It started last March, at the end of Spring Training. I didn't know what it was. We had it checked out, and I kept having the problem."

He was given medication to control the stomach pain and was unable to take anti-inflammatories. The pains persisted, but the root of the problem went undetected until extensive testing over the winter revealed the non-functioning gallbladder.

"I was not a good candidate for it because of my age [26]," Willits said. "It was the last thing they checked. They found that my gallbladder wasn't working -- it was somehow attached to my small intestine and really was causing some problems.

"I had the surgery, and they said I'll have full recovery. It's kind of like the appendix; I had that taken out in rookie ball in 2003 in Missoula, Montana. I went in, and they said, `You're going to have surgery in five minutes.'"

Getting ready to bid once again for playing time in an outfield loaded with proven talent, Willits said he's been running sprints for about two weeks and hitting for about a week and a half.

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"All you can do is ask for a chance to compete," Willits said. "You never know what can happen. I can control how hard I go out and play -- that's all I can control. Last year, if you'd told me I'd have had 400-some at-bats in the spring, I'd have told you that you were crazy."

Wife Amber presented Reggie with a brother for Jaxson as Reggie was occupying himself with the Giants' run toward Super Bowl glory. Contrary to what might be suspected, their second son was not named after the Giants' quarterback, Eli Manning.

"My wife actually picked that," Reggie said. "I said, `Hmmm . . . I'm not going to argue with you.'

"Our new house [in Fort Cobb, Okla.] has four bedrooms, but we might as well have only one. All of us are sleeping in the same bed."

Willits is sleeping much better without his gallbladder, having learned that it's a fairly common procedure that has been performed for more than 100 years safely with good results.

Manager Mike Scioscia, who marveled at Willits' performance level as a rookie in a pennant race, said Chone Figgins and Gary Matthews Jr. also are coming to camp early in recovery from injuries.

Figgins had offseason surgery on his left wrist, while Matthews was forced out of postseason play with knee tendinitis.

Figgins and Matthews are expected to hit first and second in the lineup, respectively, with a revitalized Willits in support.

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