Back in the starting lineup for the first time since last September, Reggie Willits had a big night behind the amazing Matt Palmer on Wednesday.
With a burst of speed, Willits triggered the five-run third inning that gave Palmer the lead with an infield hit. Stealing second with another burst, Reggie scored the first run on Torii Hunter’s line single. With another hit later in the game, Willits was hitting .333 as the night ended — and his family was there to see it live.
“Jaxon, my 4-year-old, was really excited,” Willits said. “But Eli [who is 1] fell asleep. It’s funny, they had a shot on TV of Amber [Reggie’s wife] holding Eli when he was asleep. My parents were watching, and it was the first time they’ve seen him since February. So they were pretty excited about that.”
Willits feels he’s close to being back to full strength after an injury-riddled 2008. If that’s the case, the Angels have another weapon in their offensive arsenal. Willits hit .293 as a rookie, a club record, with a .391 on-base percentage that also was the best-ever by an Angels rookie.
One of the game’s best bunters and a solid defender at all three outfield spots, Willits stole 27 bases with an efficiency rate of 77 percent in ’07.
“Reggie can play, man,” said Mike Napoli, who has seen Willits flourish in the Minors hitting in the first and second spots in the order. “It’s good to see him get back out there and give us some spark.”
Willits was in the lineup, batting second, as a late addition after Gary Matthews Jr. experienced tightness in his lower back before the game.
“I love hitting in the two hole,” Willits said. “It gives me a chance to use what I have. I started seeing a lot of pitches and drawing walks at [Triple-A] Salt Lake before they called me up, which told me I’m getting my eye back.”
Manager Mike Scioscia applauded Willits’ performance in his first start since last Sept. 22.
“Reggie had a real good game,” Scioscia said. “It’s a good thing to see, a guy who can’t play for a little bit and does a good job. Reggie brings some things that are important to us.”
Willits and Bobby Abreu, with their uncommon ability to draw out at-bats with selectivity and foul balls, could drive a starting pitcher to distraction behind Chone Figgins, another disciplined hitter who can put together an eight-pitch at-bat.
The one familiar problem for Willits is the crowd in the Angels’ outfield. Reggie was back on the bench on Thursday.
It has been obscured lately by the impending returns of John Lackey and Ervin Santana — both could be back in the rotation late next week — but Kelvim Escobar also is making strides in that direction.
Escobar was feeling good on Saturday after enduring a long bullpen session on Friday without a recurrence of the shoulder pain that surfaced after he got a little carried away with his mid-90s heat on April 3 in San Diego.
“I threw 30 pitches, sat down, threw 15 more, sat down, 15 more, sat down, 15 more,” Escobar said, describing his session on Friday at Angel Stadium. “That’s 75. I threw everything and felt good.”
Pitching coach Mike Butcher said Escobar looked comfortable and threw well, adding that when you add the eight warmup pitches before each of his 15-pitch simulated innings, Escobar threw a total of 99 pitches.
“I’m going to Arizona on Tuesday,” Escobar said. “I’ll be pitching in a camp game. I’m coming along. I’m not pushing it too hard this time.”
That camp game will be in extended Spring Training, where pitchers can perform under controlled conditions. The Angels are being careful with Escobar. Knowing he can’t come off the 60-day disabled list until June 4, there’s no reason to rush him — especially after he tried to do too much too soon that night at PETCO Park when he thought he was close to ready to get back in the Angels’ rotation.
It’s still a little ways off, but the Angels will have some tough calls to make when Lackey and Santana return to the rotation, to say nothing of Escobar.
Also in the mix is Dustin Moseley, who is a bullpen and a Minor League rehab outing or two away from rejoining the staff. Moseley is 1-0 with a 4.30 ERA in three starts.
Shane Loux and Matt Palmer have delivered handsomely. Loux going 2-2 with a 4.30 ERA in five starts, Palmer 3-0 with a 3.06 ERA in his three outings.
Like Moseley, Loux and Palmer could go to the bullpen. Loux is out of options, and the Angels would lose him if they removed him from the 25-man roster. Palmer has options left and could be sent to Salt Lake to stay stretched out as a starter.
Anthony Ortega, who is 0-2 with a 9.24 ERA in three starts, figures to be back in Salt Lake soon getting the experience he needs. The club is high on the 23-year-old Venezuelan’s future as a starter.
Another name to keep in mind is lefty Trevor Reckling, who turns 20 in 13 days. The Livingston, N.J., native, an eight-round Draft pick in 2007 out of high school in Newark, Reckling has been sensational this season after opening eyes in Spring Training with his high-octane stuff and poise.
Reckling is 2-0 with a 0.95 ERA in three starts at Double-A Arkansas after going 1-2 with a 0.95 ERA in three starts at high Class A Rancho Cucamonga. Combined, he has 33 strikeouts against 12 walks in 38 innings.