Josh Willingham has become a steady presence in Washington Nationals outfield

Left fielder Josh Willingham is "a guy you can count on," Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman says.
Left fielder Josh Willingham is "a guy you can count on," Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman says. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 1, 2010

JUPITER, FLA. -- Josh Willingham sat in the Washington Nationals' clubhouse Wednesday afternoon, his work on the field finished for the day. He had two more days before heading north, toward the 2010 baseball season. He chomped on a piece of pizza and looked forward to going home, save one final task. "I just got to catch a couple more fish first," Willingham said.

In Viera during the spring, Willingham spends 90 minutes roughly every other night fishing a pond at Duran, a nearby golf course. The unhurried pace suits Willingham, a player who remains steady even when his surroundings are not.

On Monday, Willingham will begin his second season in Washington as the unquestioned left fielder, an everyday player in the heart of the Nationals' lineup. His consistency makes it easy to forget that last year, he was not. Willingham began the season on the bench and ended it in unrelenting trade rumors. His circumstances changed, but Willingham never did.

"It's a lot easier to play when you have those kind of guys," said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, one of Willingham's best friends on the team. "It's not as much of a roller coaster."

For all the on-field changes the Nationals underwent from last year to now, few have been more drastic than their outfield, particularly Willingham's role in it. Willingham started last year as the fifth outfielder, behind Lastings Milledge, Austin Kearns, Adam Dunn and Elijah Dukes.

"It just kind of made you mad at first," Willingham said. "It was frustrating."

After coming to Washington in a trade from the Florida Marlins, where he played every day, sitting felt strange. Willingham started 22 of the Nationals' first 45 games. He hid his aggravation, and by the time the Nationals cleared a regular spot for him, he viewed the days spent watching as a benefit.

"I don't regret that happening," Willingham said. "It just helped me be patient, you know? You could have several different types of attitudes when something like that happens. Your first instinct is to have a bad one, to be bitter. But it's not going to do anybody any good. Swallowed a little pride and tried to get in there and help however I could."

For this season, the Nationals can study Willingham's career and know what to expect. "He's a guy you can count on," Manager Jim Riggleman said. In his first four seasons, Willingham's batting average from year to year has vacillated no more than 23 points, his on-base percentage no more than 12 points, his slugging percentage no more than 33. Each year, he has hit a home run between once every 17.8 at-bats and 24.8 at-bats.

The minor leagues steeled Willingham's steadiness. When the Marlins drafted him in the 17th round out of the University of North Alabama, Willingham assumed nothing. "My goal wasn't to get to the big leagues," Willingham said. "It was to be the best player I could." He entered his career as a corner infielder, but the Marlins turned him into a catcher, then an outfielder. He feels like he could still catch in a pinch.

His easy demeanor helped him fit into the Nationals' clubhouse immediately. Though soft-spoken, Willingham is one of the Nationals' foremost leaders.

"He's not a big, boisterous guy," General Manager Mike Rizzo said. "He has a presence to him. He's a big, Paul Bunyan-looking dude."

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