Nationals' Josh Willingham stays level headed through torrid start

Josh Willingham's three-run home run Friday night was his 10th, extending a remarkable stretch he credits to getting good pitches to hit.
Josh Willingham's three-run home run Friday night was his 10th, extending a remarkable stretch he credits to getting good pitches to hit. (Gregory Bull/associated Press)
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By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2010

SAN DIEGO -- Josh Willingham really doesn't have an explanation, even though what he's doing begs for one. "I'm not doing anything different than I ever have," he said. Willingham thrives on plainness, but his season defies simplicity. For roughly its first two months, he's been one of the most productive offensive players in baseball.

In his fifth full season, at age 31, Willingham is on pace for the best year of his career by far. After he launched a three-run home run in the Washington Nationals' 5-3 victory Friday night over the San Diego Padres, Willingham placed himself at or close to the top of most every significant statistical category in the National League.

Willingham's 10 home runs tie Adam Dunn for most on the Nationals and rank tied for seventh in the NL, two behind the leaders. He is tied for the league lead with 35 walks, which has led to a .437 on-base percentage, far and away the best in the league -- he could strike out his next six at-bats and still be ahead of Jason Heyward, the second most prolific at reaching base.

Willingham's .988 on-base plus slugging percentage ranks third. His OPS+ -- an advanced measure of OPS based on ballpark factors and then adjusted to make 100 league average -- is 163, one point behind Heyward, the NL leader. By one of the most complete measures of offensive production, Willingham is the second best player in the league. The All-Star Game is roughly a month and a half away, and if Willingham remains on his current pace he would be a likely candidate to make his first.

Why the outburst now? Willingham is as healthy and receiving as consistent playing time as he ever has. But when he tries to figure it, he throws up his hands.

"I can't say one or two things," Willingham said. "I'm just trying to take a pretty simple approach, to be honest with you. That approach is just go up there and relax and try and get a good pitch to hit. That's about all I think about."

Steadiness and consistency have been Willingham's hallmarks since he arrived in Washington before last season. "Low maintenance," is how Manager Jim Riggleman described Willingham. His favorite pastime is fishing. He is unassuming with an earnest, wry sense of humor.

"That's the guy you want to marry your daughter right there," Riggleman said. "To watch his game go to another level, you couldn't feel better for somebody."

The notion of reaching a new level seems foreign to Willingham. When asked about what he deems his potential, Willingham furrowed his brow as if he didn't understand the question.

"Duh," chided Ryan Zimmerman, standing at the next locker. ".300, 35, 140," referring to batting average, home runs and RBI. Willingham just laughed.

Is it the case, Willingham was asked, that he's just doing what he's always done, but better?

"Yeah," he said. "I guess. You know, I've some good months and some bad months and some average months. I'm in a pretty good stretch right now. All you can do is trying to keep it going." Baseball is a game of streaks. As a hitter, you just try and be as consistent as possible."

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